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MODERN INTERPRETATIONS OF GENDER IN NAGUIB MAHFOUZ'S CAIRO TRILOGY
MARYAM HASSAN ELSHALL
A THESIS PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE SCHOOL
OF THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT
OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE DEGREE OF
MASTER OF ARTS
UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
Maryam Hassan El-Shall
To my dad
I would like to thank Apollo Amoko and LaMonda Horton-Stallings for their guidance. I
have learned so much from both of them.
I would also like to acknowledge everyone in the English department at the University of
Florida, especially Jack Perlette, Kenneth Kidd, Judy Page, Tace Hedrick Pamela Gilbert, and
Kathy Williams, for all their help, support and patience.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
A C K N O W L E D G M E N T S ..............................................................................................................4
ABSTRAC T ............................................................................................... 6
1 IN TR OD U CTION ............... .............................. .............. .................. .......7
B a ck g ro u n d ................... ...................7.............................
R research Structure ......................................................... .......................... 22
E g y p t ................... ...................2...................8...........
2 P A L A C E W A L K ................................................................................................................34
3 PALACE OF DESIRE AND SUGAR STREET: VEIL AS POSTCOLONIAL
R E SP O N SE .................................................................................60
4 CON CLU SION .......... .............................................. ..... ... .. ....... ........ 84
BIBLIOGRAPHY ............................................. ..... .. ................. ............ 88
B IO G R A PH IC A L SK E T C H ............................................................................... .....................90
Abstract of Thesis Presented to the Graduate School
of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements for the Degree of Master of Arts
MODERN INTERPRETATIONS OF GENDER IN NAGUIB MAHFOUZ'S CAIRO TRILOGY
Maryam Hassan El-Shall
Chair: Apollo Amoko
Major Department: English
My research focuses on the transformation of the meaning of the veil in Mahfouz's Cairo
Trilogy, which spans the time period of Egypt's formal occupation by the British in 1922 and
anticipates Egypt's official independence in 1952. I choose to focus on the Trilogy rather than
on any of Mahfouz's other works because of the Trilogy's unique timeline. Palace Walk, the
first novel in the trilogy, opens at the start of WWI and marks the most brutal period of Egypt's
colonial history. Sugar Street, the last novel in the trilogy, closes in the year 1944 and
anticipates Egypt's formal independence. The three novels together uniquely represent Egypt's
movement from a British protectorate to an independent state. These geopolitical shifts provide
the impetus for popular cultural changes, including the return to Salafi Islam and the renewed
Islamic imperative to veil, which are the foci of this thesis.
As the sociopolitical provides the roots of man's existence for Mahfouz, this thesis seeks to
analyze the sociopolitical shifts behind the changed practice of veiling in Egypt through
Mahfouz's fiction as a source of Egyptian social history, or the "real." Mahfouz therefore
assumes the role of both critic and chronicler in The Cairo Trilogy.
According to Fadwa El-Guindi in her recent article, "Gendered Resistance, Feminist
Veiling, Islamic Feminism," the Muslim veil has seen a resurgence in urban Egypt since the
early 1970s. At this time Muslim Egyptian women across the socio-economic and educational
spectrums began adorning the Muslim headscarf consistently. This is noteworthy, El-Guindi
suggests, not because the veil was uncommon before the 1970s-indeed, it was not. What is
remarkable about the popularity of the veil in contemporary Egypt, El-Guindi notes, is the
changed motivation behind this new phenomenon. Where the grandmothers of many of these
women were removing their headscarves; and, according to Ghada Osman, their "mothers prided
themselves on their secularization" by intentionally never taking up the veil, that many of these
otherwise modem women in 1970s Egypt were veiling suggests that the veil took on a new and
very specific meaning for them.
The common assumption that issues related to culture and women are connected proves
true in this case. Many of these women in El-Guindi's article took up the veil as part of a larger
religious and cultural return to the fundamentals of Islamic practice. El-Guindi suggests that the
coincidental resurgence of the veil in 1970s Egypt with the pinnacle of Salafism, a trend that
continues today, reflects a cultural revolution in Egypt away from Western material culture
towards fundamental Islam:
It [the hijab] erupted everywhere in the main urban centers of Egypt, particularly in the universities,
ultimately spreading outward. It was a grass-root, voluntary youth movement, possibly begun, by women,
with mixed backgrounds, lifestyles and social boundaries...the voluntary wearing of the hijab since the mid-
seventies is about liberation from imposed, imported identities, consumerist behaviors, and an increasingly
materialist culture. Further, a principal aim has been to allow women greater access to Islamic literacy.1
SEl-Guindi, Fadwa. "Gendered Resistance, Feminist Veiling, Islamic Feminism." The AfhadJournal. Summer
2005, Vol 22. Issue 1. 53.
The widespread return to the veil signals Egyptian women's support for and participation in
According to Leila Ahmad, investigators commonly fix on the date 1967 as the year
fundamental Islamism took hold in Egypt.2 Several factors lead historians and Middle Eastern
scholars to this date, including the failure of Nasser's socialist program as well as decreasing
confidence in Nasser himself. But perhaps the most important factor behind the return to Islam
was Egypt's military defeat by Israel. Both the government and the people were shocked by the
defeat. Though the government sought to deflect criticism by offering a litany of reasons for
Egypt's defeat, among them logistical failures and financial pitfalls, the Egyptian populace
remained unconvinced by material explanations. They came up with a variety of different
According to Ahmad, some believed that "the military had grown elitist, corrupt and
bureaucratic, or that Egypt was underdeveloped technologically."3 However, one explanation in
particular had a particular resonance with the populace and that was that God had abandoned
Egypt because Egypt had abandoned God.4 This disillusionment with the government created
space in the social and cultural landscape for the emerging Salafi movements in Egypt,
particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, to offer a corrective. The Muslim Brothers preached
defense of the nation through faith, moral purification and internal reform.5 This meant
systematic change of the political, social and cultural structures from the ground up. The
2 Ahmad, Leila. Women and Gender in Islam. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992, 216.
3 Ahmad, Women and Gender, 216.
4 Ahmad, Women and Gender, 216.
5 Ahmad, Women and Gender, 193.
Brotherhood turned to the Islamic past, to the seventh-century Islamic state founded by the
Prophet Muhammad to model their future society.
Groups like the Muslim Brotherhood are often called-by themselves and others-Salaf or
Salafi (the adj. transliteration) because they turn to Islam's past to correct the present and plan
the future. The word Salaf means predecessors (or ancestors) and refers to the Companions of
the Prophet Muhammad, the early Muslims who followed them, and the scholars of the first
three generations of Muslims. They are also called Al-SalafAl-Saalih or "the Righteous
Predecessors." The Salafis view the first three generations of Muslims, the Prophet
Muhammad's companions, and the two succeeding generations after them as perfect examples of
how Islam should be practiced in everyday life. These three generations are often referred to as
the pious generations.6
The new veil is one among many practices invoked by Salafis that harkens back to the
traditions of early Islam. It was during the age of the Prophet that the veil became a mandatory
garment for women. Veiling in urban Egypt suggests a growing voluntary affiliation on the part
of women with a cultural and ethical Islamism that lends support, advertently or inadvertently, to
Islamist political forces. That these forces would institute legal injunctions that would have a
devastatingly negative impact on women seems unimportant to the women taking up the veil.
Nevertheless, that many women continue to adopt Islamic dress and continue to support Salafi
movements in Egypt connotes, according to Ahmad, "a faith in the inherent justice of Islam and
a faith that this justice must be reflected in the laws of Islam, plus a vagueness as to what [these
laws] might be."7 However, the extraordinary nature of this veil only becomes clear in the
6 For more on the Salafi movement see Armstrong, Karen. Muhammad: A Biography. New York: Harper Collins,
7 Ahmad, Women and Gender, 228.
context of the history against which it arises. It is thus necessary to trace the roots of the larger
cultural and political context against which what I will term this "new" veil arises.
In May of 1923, Egyptian feminist and nationalist, Huda Sha'rawi returned to Cairo after
having attended the International Women's Alliance conference held in Rome. She and her
friend and protege, Saiza Nabarawi, had been in Rome a few days before fighting for a place
among Western feminists and bringing attention to the cause of Egyptian liberation and Egyptian
women. Though the cause of Egyptian liberation from British colonialism was near the top of
their political agenda, Sha'rawi and Nabarawi went to Rome first and foremost as representatives
of the nascent Egyptian Feminist Union, the first feminist political organization in Egypt's
history. This role was the most important for the two women because, at the time of the EFU's
founding, Egyptian women had the most at stake in Egypt's future independence.
At this time, Egyptian women languished under one of the most brutal periods of internal
patriarchy.8 Middle and upper class women bore the most direct brunt of this system by virtue of
the patrimony at stake in their class affiliation. In other words, during Egypt's culturally tenuous
colonial period, the contest over Egyptian culture centered on middle and upper class women. As
members of the Egyptian elite classes, Sha'rawi and Nabarawi knew this struggle firsthand. Both
Sha'rawi and Nabarawi were raised and educated in the upper class Egyptian harem system. This
patriarchal system was constituted in the dual practices of seclusion and veiling for women and
often included the exclusive rights of polygamy, spousal repudiation and punishment for men.9
Though this system was nominally designed to confer prestige and protection to upper and
middle class women by separating them from men, the harem system served in practice to
8 El-Guindi, "Gendered Resistance," 65.
9 Ahmed, Women and Gender in Islam, 176.
oppress women. Middle and upper class women were subject to the whims of their male
guardians, routinely denied education and sometimes denied medical treatment if it called for
examination by a male doctor. 10
The practices of seclusion and veiling are linked through the larger concept offitna, the
orthodox Islamic term used to describe civil strive or social chaos. The term fitna is also
conventionally used to refer to a beautiful woman. Both seclusion and veiling are regulatory
mechanisms employed to prevent a state of fitna by the introduction of a beautiful woman into
the public sphere. Seclusion and veiling rein in what is perceived in orthodox Islam to be,
paradoxically, woman's simultaneous non-being and sexual power or qaid,11 which represents a
mortal threat to the Muslim social order and, most specifically, male spiritual purity. Women
must therefore be restrained-via seclusion and veiling-to protect men, as Fatima Mernissi's
asserts, from an "irresistible sexual attraction that will inevitably lead to social chaos."12
According to Mernissi, female sexual power is stronger than that of the male and therefore
represents a threat to the male social order. In order to contain this threat, Mernissi argues that
Muslim sexuality has become territorial: "its regulatory mechanisms consist primarily in a strict
allocation of space to each sex and an elaborate ritual [such as veiling and lowered gaze] for
resolving the contradictions arising from the intersections of space."13 Thus the notion of fitna
rests on a logic in Islam that extends the non-being of woman to the social context where men
10 Al-Saadawi, Nawal. The NawalAl-Saadawi Reader. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997, 87. See also Ahmed,
Women and Gender, 151-152.
"A double-faceted power believed to be held exclusively by women, including the power of sexual seduction as
well as the power of deceit through cunning and intrigue. For more on qaid, see Merissi, Fatima. Beyond the Veil:
Male-Female Dynamics in Modern Muslim Society. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987, 33.
12 Grace, Daphne. The Woman in the Muslin Mask: Veiling and Identity in Postcolonial Literature. Pluto Press:
13 Mernissi, Fatima. Beyond the Veil: Male-Female Dynamics in Modern Muslim Society. Bloomington: Indiana
University Press, 1987, 137.
must retain dominance and the sexes must be segregated.14 Seclusion and gender-segregation
dramatically divide the world into the male-centered public sphere and the female-inhabited
domestic sphere, ensuring the gendered hierarchy while maintaining social order.
As the processes of modernization began to set in during the 1930s and 1940s in urban
Egypt, however, seclusion became less practical and harder to police. From an economic
perspective, societies have to live and reproduce themselves before all else. In this light, the costs
of seclusion began to outweigh its benefits for Egypt's elite classes. Where seclusion had served
and reinforced a kind of title-based class system upon which wealth and prestige were based at
the turn of the century, it became an economic liability when this system began to collapse in the
1930s and '40s.15
Specifically, the breakdown of Egypt's urban economy in the wake of colonialism and the
following socialist program inaugurated after independence made it necessary for women to
venture outside of the home. The institution of schools for women beginning in the 1930s and
the opening up of employment for women outside of the home in the 1950s virtually ended the
practice of seclusion in Egypt. Though schooling for women was instituted, at least in part, to
demonstrate Egypt's innovativeness and ability to modernize to its Western occupiers, this rather
limited innovation set the standard for women's active participation in the public sphere. The
women educated during this period and those who would enter the university during Nasser's
presidency then provided the extra labor needed to get Nasser's national socialist policy off the
ground in the 1960s and 1970s when many men were sent to fight in the Arab-Israeli wars.16
14 Mernissi, Beyond the Veil, 86.
15 See Ahmad, Women and Gender, 190-192 for more on the process of gender integration and the end of seclusion.
16 See Ahmad, Women and Gender, 176 for more on twentieth-century Egyptian modernization and Egypt's role in
the Arab-Israeli wars.
Despite the economic and political changes taking place at this time, the ideology
underlying Egypt's social structure did not change as dramatically. Paradoxically, Islam became
even more deeply entrenched in Egyptian culture as Western investment, business and
technology took root. At the same time, the kind of structural transformations needed to bring
about cultural and sociological patterned changes that would allow women a more equal footing
did not take place in Egypt. Instead, modernity was imposed from the outside by Egypt's
Western occupiers as well as their native sympathizers. This ultimately left the basic ideological
foundations of the social sphere intact.17 Thus, though it was no longer beneficial or feasible to
seclude women, female sexuality was still largely regarded as a disruptive power. Therefore,
with the breakdown of seclusion in the 1930s and '40s, the veil worked to recoup some of the
social and cultural changes brought about by modernization. The veil, then, become part of a
system of "elaborate rituals" used to maintain gender boundaries when they had to be physically
With the advent of Islam, the veil was initially used for seclusion. The Arabic term hijaba
or hijab, the name given to the veil commonly worn by Muslim women in twentieth-century
urban Egypt, was first used to mandate the seclusion of the Prophet's wives in a chapter of the
Quran called the Verses of the Curtain: "If you ask [the Prophet's] wives for anything, Speak to
them from behind a curtain [hijab]. This is more chaste for your hearts and their hearts."18 The
curtain which secluded the Prophet's wives from view has become the mobile curtain or veil of
17 Ferea, Robert. "Gender, Sexuality and Patriarchy in Moder Egypt." Critique: Critical Middle Eastern Studies;
fall 2003, Vol. 12. Issue 2, 143.
18 Holy Quran. Trans. Arthur J. Arberry. Oxford: University of Oxford Press, 1964, 33: 40.
Yet, the hijab of seventh-century Arabia and the veil of early twentieth-century urban
Egypt share similar imperatives: the curtain signaled the superior status of the Prophet's wives
over other women. At the same time, the curtain maintained the gendered hierarchy between
these women and their men by reigning in female sexuality. According to Karen Armstrong's
biography of the Prophet, the curtain was initially designed to "prevent a scandalous situation
[from] developing which Muhammad's enemies could use to discredit him."19
At the time of the Prophet-- and as is still true in parts of Egypt today-- a man whose wife
wanders freely is a man whose masculinity is in jeopardy.20 A free woman in this economy
threatened the legitimacy of the family. Since there was no other way to ensure the legitimate
paternity of children at this time aside from either trusting women or physically restraining them,
they were physically restrained. The traditional forms of restraint usually included seclusion,
sometimes the assignment of a guardian, often a salve eunuch, and some form of veiling.21
This logic still held true in the patriarchal economy of early-twentieth-century Egypt. In
this class-based patriarchal economy, both veiling and seclusion were used to both display and
maintain patriarchal upper-class lines. Seclusion physically separated these women from not only
men and women of the lower and peasant classes, but also from upper and middle class men who
were not members of the family. The veil marked upper and middle class women as the
putative property of their fathers/husbands on the few occasions when they did go out. Because
class affiliation was patrilineal, ensuring the integrity of the family also ensured the legitimacy of
patrimonial lines. Both seclusion and veiling were used to these ends as policing mechanisms.
19 Armstrong, Karen. Muhammad: Biography of a Prophet. New York: Harper Collins, 1993, 198.
20 Mernissi, Beyond the Veil, 152.
21 For more on the early practices of veiling and seclusion, see Armstrong, Karen. Muhammad: Biography of a
Prophet. New York: Harper Collins, 1993, 198.
The veil thus becomes what Daphne Grace calls a kind of double shield "protecting women
against society and protecting society against her."22
When Sha'rawi and Nabarawi returned to Egypt, they were determined to fight this system
of oppression. As they stepped off of the train at the Cairo station, they removed their veils in a
symbolic act of emancipation.23 It was as if returning to Egyptian soil awakened them to the
most important imperative of their struggle: the freedom to self-identity. By removing their
veils, Sha'rawi and Nabarawi inaugurated a new phase in the struggle for women's rights in
Egypt: they reclaimed the agency24 to define themselves.
In fact, by the time of Sha'rawi's move, the stage had already been set for cultural
revolution among Egyptian women. By the 1870s and 1880s, male and female intellectuals were
advocating primary school education for women and calling for reforms in matters of polygamy
and divorce.25 They wanted Egypt to adopt a civil code similar to the Swiss civil code adopted
by Ataturk in Turkey. This code limited marriage to the couple and granted men and women
equal rights in divorce. The Swiss code also ensured equal opportunity for custody of any
children produced during the marriage.26 Also at this time, the Egyptian Women's Magazine
Hawa (Eve) had been in publication in Cairo since 1892, years before the rise of public
22 Grace, Woman in the Muslin Mask, 21.
23 Ahmad, Women and Gender, 176.
24I am appropriating Saba Mahmood's definition of agency, which assumes that" in order for an individual to be
free, it is required that her actions be the consequence of her 'own will' rather than of custom, tradition or direct
coercion" (207). For more on agency, see Mahmoud, Saba. 2001. "Feminist Theory, Embodiment, and the Docile
Agent: Some Reflections on the Egyptian Islamic Revival," Cultural i,,i ',. '1i. i'. Vol 6. Issue 2,202-236.
25 El-Guindi, "Gendered Resistance," 62.
26 Ahmad, Women and Gender, 168.
sentiments regarding feminism became prevalent. Hawa created one of the first legitimate
public spaces for women to voice their opinions on various issues of the day.27
By 1910 consideration about the details of veiling and unveiling was well established in
intellectual circles. That year the Cairo newspaper al-'Afaf signaled its support for feminist
positions by publishing a drawing of a woman standing in front of the pyramids and the sphinx,
her face veiled only by a light, translucent fabric. This sparked public debate on the issue and
stirred such uproar among conservatives that the newspaper had to issue an apology for the
drawing. 28 Nevertheless, social currents continued to change. Shortly after World War I,
Lebanese writer Anbara Salam al-Khalidi, comparing the plight of Egyptian women to Lebanese
women, observed that Egyptian women are "more emancipated than us...they saw the world
with unveiled eyes [unlike our women] who did not see the world except from behind black
veils."29 Furthermore, photographs and reports from the time period display unveiled girls in
schools, on the streets and in protests in between 1910 and 1919. Unveiling was therefore
already publicly visible before 1923.
Thus, though Sha'rawi did not introduce the movement to unveil, she symbolized what its
leaders had been preaching since the late nineteenth century. According to El-Guindi, Sha'rawi's
move immediately "entered the lore on women's liberation and, as lore, is alive and is
continually embellished."30 Sha'rawi's action was therefore a pioneering one in the eyes of
Egyptian feminists because of who Sha'rawi was and the dramatic way she enacted her
27 El-Guindi, "Gendered Resistance," 62.
28 Osman, "Back to Basics," 75.
29 qtd in El-Guindi, "Gendered Resistance," 66.
30 El-Guindi, "Gendered Resistance," 65.
resistance. Therefore, it is worth noting Sha'rawi's unveiling because hers is the name
remembered by Egyptian feminists as having instigated the drive to unveil.
Sha'rawi's radical move is important in my analysis for three reasons, the first and perhaps
most apparent, being its symbolic daring. By removing their veils, these early Egyptian
feminists used the veil as the ultimate symbol of resistance. They were turning their backs on
upper-class Egyptian systems of gender oppression and reclaiming the agency to define
themselves. The second reason for remembering this moment is for the material change it
signaled in the history of Egyptian women. Within a decade of Sha'rawi's historic move, only a
few upper and middle class women continued to veil.31 Similarly, the practice of seclusion was
on the decline and strict gender segregation was diminishing in the public sphere. Indeed, after
Sha'rawi and Nabarawi removed their veils there was loud applause in the Cairo train station,
during which other women in the station also removed their veils.32
Finally, it is important to note Sha'rawi's radical step in the liberation of women because
we have come full circle from where she began. In other words, the resurgence of the veil as a
tool of female agency provides the historical link between Sha'rawi's time and our own. Indeed,
the veil has once again emerged as the symbolic marker of middle and upper-class Egyptian
Muslim women's status in the latter part of the twentieth century. Rather than its removal,
however, upper and middle-class Egyptian Muslim women are marking their liberation by once
again taking up the veil.
This resurgence in veiling is fueled by a larger renewal in Islamic faith in Egyptian society.
Thus, the though veil as a garment worn by women may not now be more numerically prevalent
31 El-Guindi, "Gendered Resistance," 65.
32 El-Guindi, "Gendered Resistance," 65.
than it was at the turn of the century, its meaning and application have changed. This new veil
differs from the traditional veil of early twentieth century elites in that it is distinctly religious.
Also, this veil is self-imposed rather than externally mandated upon women and usually only
covers the head rather than the whole face.
In order to understand this transformation in the meaning of the veil in contemporary
Egypt, we must first understand its role during Sha'rawi's time and for her class, that is, as a
traditional marker of class. At the turn of the century, the veil played a crucial role in the
protection and maintenance of aristocratic family name and status. The veil specifically
embodied a moral and behavioral code that was specific to and indicative of class. Upper and
middle class women were widely regarded as the embodiments of Egyptian cultural authenticity
and propriety. By virtue of their positions as the wives of urban political and financial notables,
upper and middle class women were also regarded as the representatives of the Egyptian male-
centered family. It was at this point that, according to Ahmad, "the veil emerged as a potent
signifier connoting not merely the social meaning of gender but also matters of far broader
political and cultural import."33
The most important connotation of the veil at this time was class. Because women attained
their class status through patrilineal affiliation or marriage, the veil served as a visible marker of
class when the elite wives and daughters ventured out of seclusion. These two systems-the
familial and the class-were mutually reinforced through the power of Islam, which was used to
justify the traditional practices of seclusion and veiling. Paradoxically, however, Islam remained
3 Ahmad, Women and Gender in Islam, 129.
a marginal aspect of elite Egyptian life at this time. Religious obligation was rarely the
justification offered for the veil.34
At the beginning of the twentieth century, seclusion and veiling were co-opted from Islam
by upper and middle class Egyptian patriarchy to preserve the gendered social boundaries that
were fundamental to elite social mores. Though these customs were firmly imbedded in Islamic
notions of a threatening female sexuality, middle and upper class patriarchy realized that men
and women needed to interact in prescribed ways so as to preserve familial integrity and honor.
In other words, because class was based a system of inherited patrimony and family name, a
system was constructed in which both the family wealth and name were protected; the father had
to ensure that the children his wife bore were indeed his own and that the wealth and name
passed on to them were therefore secure within the family. Thus, the fear of fitna, an entirely
Islamic notion, which was posed by the visible presence of women, added an element of vested
communal interest to the seclusion of elite women.
Though the religious and traditional veils cannot be absolutely extricated from one another,
the distinction between the two types of veiling is subtle and lies primarily in the intention that
precedes the decision to veil as well as its application. It is this aspect of veiling that I am
arguing has changed. For example, though the majority of Egypt's female population at the turn
of the century identified as Muslim,35 seclusion and veiling remained almost the exclusive
practices of Egyptian elites. This is no longer the case.
34 Ahmad, Women and Gender in Islam, 129.
35 The most recent census taken in Egypt in June 2005 shows that 94% of Egyptians identify as Muslim. After
comparing the levels of population growth overall with that of minority groups as well as accounting for
immigration and emigration, I deduced that the majority of Egyptians at the turn of the century had to be Muslim to
constitute such an overwhelming majority today. See Sharp, Jeremy. CRSIssue Brieffor Congress: Egypt-United
States Relations accessed through the CRS Website.
The 1952 Egyptian revolution inaugurated a new age for women. A new socialist program
was initiated under the auspices of Gamal Abdul-Nasser, Egypt's first native president, that
would change Egypt's class structure and alter the position of Egyptian women.36 With the Land
Reform Law, Egypt's large land-holders were forced to forfeit much of their land to the
government for equal distribution among Egypt's farmers. Roughly four years after this law was
the passed, the government began various social reform measures aimed at redistributing Egypt's
business and capital wealth more equitably. This included the nationalization of foreign
businesses and all big businesses in the industrial sector of the economy, rent control, minimum
wage laws and the introduction of social services for the poor.37 These measures dramatically
altered Egypt's class structure, ultimately disbanding the old elite and drawing a new segment of
the population into the middle classes. The women of Egypt's new middle class were at the
forefront of the resurgence in veiling.
According to Ahmad, prior to this rise in the new middle class, the concern about feminism
was exclusive to Egypt's elite classes. The colonial feminism co-opted by Egypt's westernized
elites-like Huda Sha'rawi and Saiza Nabarawi-was the dominant discourse on issues
important to women, including seclusion and veiling. In addition to reforming family law and
expanding Egypt's educational system to create a space of women, these early feminists were
largely secular and envisioned future roles for Egyptian women not unlike those being taken up
by women in the West. Part of these early feminists' program included even the rather mundane
aspects of dress and demeanor so that by the late 1940s and early 1950s the veil, whether a
covering for the face or just the head, virtually disappeared from the Egyptian urban scene.38
36 Ahmad, Women and Gender, 209.
37 Ahmad, Women and Gender, 209.
38 Ahmad, Women and Gender, 216.
A gap emerges in the concern for feminist issues between this generation of elite feminists
and Egypt's mass movement to return to the veil. According to Ahmad, the "overt concern with
feminism seems distinctly absent among women of the succeeding generation."39 Women
coming of age in the 1970s and 1980s, however, pick up where their grandmothers' left off, but
enacting a very homegrown version of their grandmothers' movement by take up the veil rather
than removing it. Additionally, where many of the grandmothers' looked to the West to pattern
their movement in Egypt, contemporary Egyptian women dramatically reject the West, a gesture
signaled through the new veil.
It should be noted that many of the women taking up the veil at this time also did so for the
very practical reasons. Aside from the religious and political reasons for taking up the veil, many
rural-to-urban women found that the veil afforded them a certain degree of security on the street.
The veil also allows for a certain degree of anonymity while creating a tacit kinship with other
veiled women on the street. Beneath even these practical reasons for veiling, however, the new
veil represents the increased resonance of right-wing Islamist discourses now shaping Egyptian
culture.40 The new veiling in Egypt is often a political identity-marker within this new wave of
Islamist groups grew stronger and more widespread in the 1970s as has their visible
emblem, the veil.42 In this way, the new veil has been integrated into mainstream Egyptian
society from the ground up. The new veil is part of a wide-scale middle class movement in
39 Ahmad, Women and Gender, 216.
40 Ahmad, Women and Gender, 216.
41 Grace, The Woman in the Muslin Mask, 75.
42 Ahmad, Women and Gender, 217.
Egypt to revive Islam in the wake of Western-inspired modernization.43 When Egypt's earliest
feminists began advocating that women oppressed by Islamic Arab culture abandon that culture
all together in favor of the European, the seeds of a cultural, religious backlash were planted.
These seeds would give rise on a mass scale to Salafi movements and programs across the board.
Salafi programs affected and attracted the lower classes first largely because the lower
classes had suffered most from the colonial venture. During the course of Nasser's socialist
policies, however, the lower echelon of Egyptian society most attracted to Salafism were drawn
into the ranks of Egypt's rising middle classes, becoming the social and cultural trendsetters for
the rest of the populace. When this emerging middle-class dramatically rejected the West in
preference for Salafism in the late 1940s and early 1950s-just as Egypt's former leaders began
to fall away from the public scene-they signaled the social and cultural direction Egypt would
take in the coming decades.
My research focuses on the transformation of the meaning of the veil in Mahfouz's Cairo
Trilogy, which spans the time period of Egypt's formal occupation by the British in 1922 and
anticipates Egypt's official independence in 1952. I choose to focus on the trilogy rather than on
any of Mahfouz's other works because of the trilogy's unique timeline. Palace Walk, the first
novel in the trilogy, opens at the start of WWI and marks the most brutal period of Egypt's
colonial history. Sugar Street, the last novel in the trilogy, closes in the year 1944 and
anticipates Egypt's formal independence. The three novels together uniquely represent Egypt's
movement from a British protectorate to an independent state. These geopolitical shifts provide
43 El-Guindi, "Gendered Resistance," 65.
the impetus for popular cultural changes in Egypt, including the return to Salafi Islam and the
renewed Islamic imperative to veil, which are the foci of this thesis.
According to postcolonial cultural critic, Homi Bhabha, literature plays a key role in
answering questions about postcolonial identity. For Bhabha, the study of world literature
requires that new techniques must be appropriated whereby cultures can appreciate themselves
through their depictions of 'otherness.'44 Mahfouz uses a mix of realism and social allegory in
order to appreciate his own urban Egyptian culture in the early twentieth-century, a time period
spanning roughly the duration of Mahfouz's childhood.45 In other words, just as Orientalists and
Egyptologists constructed an image of Egypt through literature and art, Mahfouz reimagines
Egypt and Egyptians through fiction.
Though for many writers of literature in the postcolonial Arab and Muslim worlds,
Mahfouz among them, the veil is not highlighted but passes as part of the traditional milieu,46 the
very inconspicuous ubiquity of the veil in these novels makes the literary an accurate barometer
of the real. In other words, in interpreting Egypt's specific political and historical realities on
their own terms, Mahfouz's literary evocations document the changing application and meaning
of the veil incidentally as part of their mimetic rendering.
I focus on the veil not because Mahfouz focuses on the veil, but rather because of the
significance of the veil in the history of Muslim women. Muslim women have not historically
received much attention except for the ways that they are registered in both the West's and the
Muslim male's minds as being intrinsically different. This difference lies, according Middle
Eastern scholars, in the realms of sexuality and gender performance. It is around this notion of
44 Grace, Woman in the Muslin Mask, 9.
45 El-Nany, Rasheed. Naguib Mahfouz: The Pursuit oJ I....i,,i London: Routledge, 1993, 81.
46 Grace, Woman in the Muslin Mask, 9.
women's inherent difference that discourses of inferiority and weakness have been constructed in
Islamic orthodoxy and upon which Islamic orthopraxy is largely based, the most conspicuous
examples being seclusion and veiling.
I focus on Mahfouz and his Cairo Trilogy because of the historically accuracy of his
narrative. In the Cairo Trilogy, the veil is simply a given, a cultural and religious manifestation
that is so ubiquitous that it is almost invisible. This is realistic because this is how veiling is
treated on the streets of Egypt and other parts of the Muslim world. Veiling is not an
extraordinary thing in the novel because it is not an extraordinary thing in the everyday life of
the Muslim. Mahfouz's refrain from explicit references to the issue speaks eloquently about its
importance. A novel that explicitly focused on the veil or a woman's decision to veil-as if it
were an agonizing experience when, in most cases, it is a rather mundane part of life-risks
artificiality at best and sensationalist Orientalism at worst.
With this said, since it has been exclusively within the realms of sexuality performances of
gender as evinced in the marked absence of women at this time-i.e. their seclusion and their
veiling-- it is, then, via these markers-- or lack thereof-- that we can note shifts in women's
status, subjectivity, etc. This is true for the practical reason that any other manifestation of status
is absent in historical, anthropological and literary texts.47
Thus, I rely on the historical to guide and frame my arguments about veiling because of the
importance of the "real" to the Arabic novel generally and to Mahfouz specifically. According to
Ayo Kehinde, the Arabic novel is a "product of the unfolding socio-political events in its
47 See Ahmad, Leila. Women and Gender in Islam. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992, 150-156, 160, 162-
165, 167, 235, 243-247, 279.
enabling society," and has always been "largely located in the domain of social realism."48 In
this regard, says Kehinde, "it may not be an exaggeration...to claim that [the Arabic novel]
signifies a relationship between the individual [author] and his society."49 This last point is
especially pertinent when discussing the works ofNaguib Mahfouz in this thesis. As the
sociopolitical provides the roots of man's existence for Mahfouz, this thesis seeks to analyze the
sociopolitical shifts behind the changed practice of veiling in Egypt through Mahfouz's fiction.50
The Cairo Trilogy, by virtue of its verisimilitude, is an accurate reflection of facts on the
ground. Mahfouz assumes the role of both critic and chronicler in The Cairo Trilogy.
According to Menahem Milson, The Cairo Trilogy was written at the height of Mahfouz's
mimetic period. In the novels written during this period:
Mahfouz endeavors to grasp social reality as observed directly by him. These stories need
not be explained by, nor can they be reduced to, a set of theoretical ideas and moral
precepts; they have an artistic existence of their own. [However], many of the characters
in these novels represent something beyond their fictional role. Stern patriarch, submissive
wife, obedient and dutiful son, rich merchant and other similar characters are social types
as well as individual people. Mahfuz has certainly retained the impulse of a social critic
and the pathos of a moralist...5
The real, for Mahfouz, provides the means with which the author can express his ideas.
Mahfouz calls this kind of Realism New Realism. This Realism "inspire[s] writings and directs]
the author to a reality which is used as a means of expression,"52 allowing the writer to assume a
dialectic between external truth and the ideas that give them shape and meaning.
48 Kehinde, Ayo. "The contemporary Arabic novel as social history: urban decadence, politics and women in
Naguib Mahfouz's fiction." Studies in the Humanities. Summer 2003. Vol. 30. Issue 1: 144.
49 Kehinde, "The contemporary Arabic novel," 144.
50 Kehinde, "The contemporary Arabic novel," 144.
51 Milson, Menahem. Nagib Mahfouz: The Novelist-Philosopher of Cairo. St. Martin's Press: New York, 1998,
52 Mater, Nabil. I. "Homosexuality in the Early Novels of Nageeb Mahfouz." Journal ofHomosexuality. 1994. Vol.
26. Issue 4. 1994, 79.
Because of the close relationship between Mahfouz's Cairo Trilogy and the real,
specifically Egypt's social and cultural transformations, I divide the literary discussions
according to where they fall within Egypt's history. In other words, I offset discussion of the first
novel from that of the second and third because the first novel coincides with the significant
historical break in Egypt's history: the end of WWI and Egypt's lost hopes for independence.
Indeed, for Mahfouz, the 1919 rebellion that followed the War has remained the most crucial
event in Egypt's modern history.53
The year 1919 saw the end of WWI and the beginning of the European mandate system.
Under this system, the Ottoman territories lost during the War were divided between the Allied
victors, specifically Britain and France. Syria, Lebanon, Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia more or
less fell under French dominion as either protectorates or colonies. Egypt and the Sudan,
Transjordan and Iraq became British protectorates. Protectorate status granted Egypt only
nominal independence, allowing an Egyptian head of state, at this time the Ottoman descended
King Abbas Pasha-- who was, despite being a mere figure-head, quickly deposed by the British
for expressing German sympathies during the War. Protectorate status also allowed the Egyptian
government limited control over resources and spending. British and Australian troops
continued to occupy Egypt's urban and transport centers; they were stationed throughout Egypt.
Most devastating, however, protectorate status committed Egypt to an unequal trading
relationship with Britain. Egypt provided Britain with cheap raw materials extracted by cheap
labor as well as a ready market for British manufactured goods. It was an imperialist system of
interference and without responsibility.54
53 Milson, Nagib Mahfouz, 18.
54 Grace, The Woman in the Muslin Mask, 67.
Many Egyptians were disappointed with this outcome. Many had hoped the end of the
War would free Egypt of its Western occupiers and bring an end to its Ottoman-descended
monarchy. When this did not happen and, worse, the founders of the native Wafd party were
exiled, the already mounting frustration exploded into widespread strikes, political protests and,
in some places, outright rioting. Men and women were shot and killed when British soldiers
opened fire on whole crowds to control rebellions in Kafr el Shawm in Embaba and in Fayyum
on March 19, 1919. More were killed in other provinces as well as in Cairo in the following
weeks.55 Egypt, for Mahfouz, had lost its innocence.
The second novel picks up after the radical geo-political and cultural break that Egypt
experienced after the end of WWI. The sense of hopefulness and promise that pervades the first
novel is replaced with a sense of gloom and desperation in the second novel. The despair of the
second, then, is carried out to tragic ends in the third. Indeed, in several interviews and essays,
Mahfouz remembers the time period recorded in the second and third novels as a period of
pessimism and despair.56 The political and cultural breaks between the end of the first novel and
the start of the second, therefore, justify the singular discussion of the first novel apart from that
of the second or third.
I discuss the second and third novels together, rather than discussing each in a chapter of
its own, because of the political and cultural continuity exhibited between them. The political
and popular forces that are beginning to form in the second novel coalesce into strong social
movements in the third novel. For example, the Communist Party and the Muslim Brotherhood
are in their infancies in the second novel. We only witness the forces that inspire these two
55 Ahmad, Women and Gender, 173.
56 Milson, Nagib Mahfouz, 39.
movements as well as their official births in the second novel. It is in the third novel, however,
that these movements take off, with the young Ahmad coming of age as a young Communist
while his brother, Abd al-Munim represents the growing Muslim Brotherhood. Thus, the second
novel anticipates the third novel. The two together display a political and cultural continuity that
justifies their discussion together.
In the first chapter of the thesis, I will focus on the first novel of the trilogy, Palace Walk,
which begins at the start of WWI and closes with the War's end in 1919. Within this chapter, I
will examine the various treatments of the women in the novel based on their class and/or family
affiliation. I will argue that the various practices of secluding and veiling women in this novel
are crucial to the maintenance and protection of class divisions.
In the second chapter, I will focus on the last two novels of the trilogy, Palace of Desire
and Sugar Street. I will argue that the renewed practice of veiling that emerges at the end of the
trilogy anticipates the emergence of the new veil in postcolonial Egypt. This new practice of
veiling, I will argue, symbolizes the Islamicizing of Egyptian society. I will show that this
Islamic trend was inspired by the political and cultural threat posed by the lingering British
presence in Egypt after WWI, the end of which coincides with the closing of the first novel and
the opening of the second. I will show that the attempts to recapture a Golden Age of Islam that
emerge at the end of the trilogy reflect a deep-seated fear of cultural corruption and religious
innovation posed by the West. I will argue that such returns to the past demonstrate a desperate
attempt to rescue a tradition that has already changed by the end of the second novel.
In the second part of this introduction, I will contextualize the novels within early
twentieth century Cairo in order to provide a concrete historical background for the arguments I
make in the following chapters. This part of the introduction is thus intended to situate the
novels within specific historical periods in Egypt. This is important because I rely on Egypt's
history to guide my reading of the novels.
I provide this discussionfirst so that it may act as background and factual reference for the
arguments I develop about the novels in the thesis. Though there is not necessarily a one-to-one
correspondence between the history I offer in the introductory discussion and the history
Mahfouz provides in the novels, Mahfouz's fictional depiction of Egypt closely mirrors the
conventional historical narrative offered by historians and upon which I rely to construct my
The second reason I divide the introductory discussion of Egypt from the chapters is so
that the historical narrative can frame my argument about the changing symbolism of the veil in
the novels; the novels themselves provide the grounds. In other words, rather than conducting an
anthropological study of the resurgence of veiling in order to find the roots of the movement, I
rely on Mahfouz's realistic fiction to construct my argument. The history offered in the second
part of the introduction is thus intended to not only to provide concrete historical association for
the events Mahfouz documents in the novels, but also to anticipate my reading of the novels in
the next chapters, hopefully clarifying ahead of time why I choose to focus on events and aspects
of the novels that might otherwise seem inconsequential.
The measure of importance in my reading of events in the novels is in direct
correspondence to Egypt's historical narrative. It is by observing the changing facts on the
ground-the recent phenomenon of veiling on a wide scale in contemporary Egypt and the
seeming correspondence between this new veil and Salafi movements in Egypt-that I was
motivated to observe these changes in Mahfouz's fiction. In other words, in the two chapters of
this thesis, I examine Mahfouz's Cairo Trilogy for his fictional justification and/or explanation
of the historical.
My observation of "facts on the ground" is my study of the works of empirical and
anthropological studies of the veil conducted in Egypt. For the purposes of this thesis, I rely
primarily on Fadwa El-Guindi's and Ghada Osman's analyses of the veil in contemporary Egypt
because of the timeliness and the resonance of their arguments. Indeed, El-Guindi's study seems
to proceed from an impulse similar to mine: her own "observations on the new and innovative
form of Islamic veiling and dress code."57 She concludes that the new veil that emerges in
contemporary Egypt is part of a "larger Islamicizing of Egyptian life and politics that arose in
direct resistance to the colonial/imperial assault on Arabs and Muslims"58 In this regard then,
this movement is populist: "It is also grounded in culture and in Islam, and never had any formal
organization or membership. It erupted everywhere in the main urban centers of Egypt,
particularly in the universities, ultimately spreading outward. It was a grass-root, voluntary youth
movement, possibly begun, by women, with mixed backgrounds, lifestyles and social
Ghada Osman also notes a populist return to the Islamic veil in Egypt, noting, as El-Guindi
does, that the veil represents the most visible manifestation of Islamic resurgence in
contemporary Egyptian life. Indeed, Osman further clarifies this point by juxtaposing this recent
impetus to veil to earlier motivations to unveil. Osman compares the contemporary Egyptian
57 El-Guindi, "Gendered Resistance," 55.
58 El-Guindi, "Gendered Resistance,"55.
59 El-Guindi, "Gendered Resistance," 71.
women who veil to their mothers who had "prided themselves on their secularization and
Westernization," and their grandmothers who were the first to remove their veils.60
Egypt's protracted colonial relationship with the West began with Napoleon's unsuccessful
Egyptian expedition in 1798. Napoleon's venture into Egypt was an attempt to best Britain, its
then greatest political rival, in the high-stakes struggle for European and, ultimately, global
balance of power. Both France and Britain had a vested interest in occupying Egypt in the
eighteenth and nineteenth centuries both for its natural resources and its strategic geographical
In 1914, the British officially assumed political control of Egypt when it deposed Egyptian
king, Abbas Pasha, for his suspected German sympathies at the start of WWI. This coercive
move on the part of the British inspired the first official independence movement in Egypt, called
the Wafd, whose program established the pattern of secularism in the formation of Egypt's
secular political economy after the British removal in 1952 and is a major focus of Mahfouz's
It was not until the presidency of Gamal Abdul Nasser in 1956, however, that Egypt
formally assumed a position of leadership among Arab states.61 After Egypt gained full
independence from Britain in 1952, Nasser embarked on a self-conscious anticolonialist move to
break away from the West, which inspired other independence movements in the Arab world.
Nasser set out to create an autonomous nation-state through an optimistic socialist program
within Egypt. He also revolutionized Egyptian foreign policy when he realigned Egypt with the
interests of Communist Russia and the eastern European Communist bloc, putting Egypt
60 Osman, "Back to Basics," 73.
61 For more on Nasser's trend-setting in the Arab world see Baker, Raymond William. "Egypt in the Time and Space
of Globalism." Arab Studies Quarterly; summer 1999, Vol. 2. Issue 3.
distinctly on the side of Communist interests in the Cold War. Indeed, many other Arab states,
including Syria62 and Iraq,63 followed in Egypt's path soon thereafter.
It was also during Nasser's presidency that anti-Western Salafi Islamic movements
formalized their message in Egypt and soon thereafter gained widespread popularity in both
Egypt and other parts of the Arab and wider Muslim worlds. Though the West had been
physically driven out of Egypt by the time of Nasser's presidency, the Muslim Brothers
increased their currency in the beleaguered populace by demonstrating that the West had lodged
itself in the hearts and minds of the Egyptian people, the most remarkable example of which,
paradoxically, was provided by Nasser himself. Despite his anti-Western stance, Nasser was a
product of the secular revolution that had expelled the British in 1952 and that dated back to the
secular Waft party documented in Mahfouz's Trilogy. The Muslim Brothers objected to the
separation of state and religion that Nasser made official during his presidency, arguing that
secularism runs counter to basic Islamic principles.64
62 After several years of internal political turmoil and a humiliating defeat by the Israeli army in 1948, the Syrian
government turned to Egypt's President Gamal Abdul Nasser for help. When newly elected Baath party saw no way
of preserving its position in the country or Syria's position in the region, party leaders announced that it was drafting
a bill for union i\ ith Evpt. Though party leaders fully expected that Nasser would dissolve all parties in Syria, they
nevertheless envisaged a special role for themselves in the new state because of their continued support of Nasser
and their identification with his views. For his part, though Nasser was reluctant to take on Syria's troubles, he
agreed to the union only after a Syrian delegation convinced him of the seriousness of internal Communist threats.
Syria and Egypt united to form the United Arab Republic (UAR) on February 1, 1958, a move that was later ratified
by a plebiscite in each country. In 1959, after over ten years of unification, the Syrian government became
increasingly dissatisfied w\ ilh E,_vpt's domination and voted to secede from the union after a 1961military coup in
63 In response to overwhelming Egyptian influence, the Western-oriented kingdoms of Iraq and Jordan attempted to
form their own union, but the Iraqi-Jordanian federation did not last in the face of Egyptian opposition. Indeed,
except for Jordan, all the Arab nations had briefly fallen under Egypt's sphere of influence during Nasser's regime.
64 Sayyid Qutb, a leading Muslim Brother, in his Signposts on the Road, compared the emerging society under
Nasser to the period ofjahilliya or "ignorance" that existed in Arabia prior to the advent of Islam. He wrote that
there can only be two kinds of societies: Muslim andjahilliya. In Muslim societies, Islam is the rule of law and is
applied across the board. Injahilliya societies, people follow man-made laws, separating religion from matters of
the state. He went on to prosecute Egypt's leaders for this lapse, saying that even if the leaders proclaim themselves
Muslim, they are not if their legislation does not stem from the divine law of the Quran. For more on Muslim
Brotherhood opposition to Nasser's secular regime, see Qutb, Sayyid. Sign Posts on the Road. Salimiah:
International Islamic Federation of Student Organizations, 1978.
In the late '50s and early '60s, the Muslim Brothers thus began a fight, paradoxically, for
both the past and the future. In an attempt to rescue what they saw as a dying way of life, Salafi
groups, most notably the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, attempted to recreate an Islamic polity
based on the seventh-century Muslim city-state model founded by the Prophet of Islam,
Muhammad.65 This required a dramatic project to remodel not just the political life of Egypt, but
also to remake the social sphere from the ground. Women, as is often the case, became the
vehicles of Salafi Islamic expression through, specifically, dress. In the case of the resurgence of
the veil, however, women were not the passive objects upon which male-imposed meanings were
foisted, but were rather the active participants in the drive to recreate a Golden Age of Islam in
Thus, the rise and growing popularity of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is important for
two reasons. Mahfouz's Trilogy spans the time before the official birth of the Muslim
Brotherhood and documents the changes that take place during and after British occupation that
bring about its rise, which suggests that such Salafi movements rose in response to
Westernization in Egypt. Second, it is in coincidence with the rise of such movements in Egypt
that the new veil emerges. Therefore, by noting the religious/social shifts that take place in
response to the Western influence in Egypt in The Cairo Trilogy, such as the rise of the Muslim
Brotherhood, I will demonstrate that the new veil becomes a symbol of religious solidarity.
65 Nedoroscik, Jeffrey, A. E\lusicinnl Groups in Egypt." Terrorism and Political Violence. Summer 2002, Vol. 14,
Issue 2, 49.
The Cairo Trilogy is made up of three novels, Palace Walk, Palace of Desire, and Sugar
Street, the titles of which each refer to the three addresses where three generations of the Abd al-
Jawad family reside from 1917, the date which marks the opening of Palace Walk, until 1944,
the close of the family saga in Sugar Street. In this chapter I focus on Palace Walk. Palace Walk,
though published in 1956, documents the lives of the first generation of Abd al-Jawads in WWI
Cairo. It is primarily through the family patriarch, al-Sayyid Ahmad, that we come to know the
other principle characters in the novel. Indeed, the main characters' struggle to live under al-
Sayyid Ahmad's authoritarian rule forms the central conflict in this novel.
Al-Sayyid Ahmad is a 45-year-old merchant and patriarch who is best characterized by his
contradictions rather than his positive attributes. At home, al-Sayyid Ahmad is stern,
authoritarian and much feared by both his wife and his children. However, at his shop and
during his evening entertainments, al-Sayyid Ahmad is the life of the party, popular among his
friends and customers for his generosity, graciousness and wit, well known among the women
for his sexual prowess. When the novel opens, al-Sayyid Ahmad has just ended an affair with
the singer, Jalila, in order to begin a new one with another female entertainer named Zanuba. At
home, though, al-Sayyid Ahmad's family knows him only as a devout Muslim and strict
Al-Sayyid Ahmad is father to Yasin (21) from a previous marriage, Khadija (20), Fahmy
(18), Aisha (16) and Kamal (10). At the opening of Palace Walk, al-Sayyid Ahmad has been
married to Amina for close to 25 years. Their marriage is an exercise in middle-class patriarchal
power than it is a love union between equals. Al-Sayyid Ahmad wields unquestioned authority
over his wife and children. According to middle-class Egyptian traditions at this time, a man's
wife and children are regarded as extensions of himself. They carry his name and, by virtue of
their name, are entitled to share in his wealth.
Yasin is al-Sayyid Ahmad's oldest son and, in many ways, his double. Yasin is
characterized by his aggressive manner and animalistic appetites. Like his father, Yasin enjoys
drinking late into the night in the company of women, two habits that are in direct transgression
of Islamic law. These details about Yasin's character are perhaps meant as partial explanation
for why, when we meet him, Yasin is a mere secretary at a primary school. Having never
finished elementary school, Yasin is therefore confined to low-level positions in the civil service,
spending his free time and money in bars and brothels. Yasin thus embodies all of his father's
physical and spiritual weaknesses without having inherited any of al-Sayyid Ahmad's finesse or
But where Yasin can be said to be al-Sayyid Ahmad's rough-edged doppelganger, Fahmy
can be said to encapsulate al-Sayyid Ahmad's intellectual side. When we first meet him, Fahmy
is a serious law student with little time or interest in the kind of extra-curricular amusements of
his father and brother. In addition, Fahmy is deathly afraid of his father and therefore closely
abides by al-Sayyid Ahmad's code of middle-class conduct. When Fahmy asks and is denied
permission to become engaged to the neighbor's daughter, Maryam, both the power of Al-Sayyid
Ahmad's authority and the extent of Fahmy's fear of him become clear. It therefore takes an
event of monumental importance for Fahmy to break away from his father's rule: at the end of
the novel, Fahmy participates in a popular anti-British rally against al-Sayyid Ahmad's wishes.
It is in the course of this failed protest that Fahmy is shot and killed. With Fahmy, then, the
pride and hope of Al-Sayyid Ahmad also dies. Palace Walk closes on a note of despair for both
the Abd al-Jawads and Egypt.
Yasin and Fahmy represent two different dimensions of al-Sayyid Ahmad, Kamal,
however, could not be more different than his father. He is described as devoid of his father's
physical charms and his mother's beauty, two facts which foreshadow his future deviation from
both of their paths. 1 Though he is merely a child often at the opening of Palace Walk, Kamal
already exhibits the inquisitiveness and creativity that will pit him against his father in the last
two novels. In Palace of Desire and in Sugar Street, Kamal will come to represent the new in
Egypt, where al-Sayyid Ahmad can be said to represent the past. Kamal's generation is forward
looking and politically progressive. They prefer philosophy to the practical know-how of their
fathers. They prefer science and empirical knowledge to religion and faith. According to
Richard Dyer in his review of Palace Walk upon its English-language publication, Kamal "is
both the portrait of the artist as a young man, Naguib Mahfouz himself, and the representative of
a new and uncolonial Egypt. 'I ask about your future," his father cries out, "and you reply that
you want to know the origin of life and its destiny. What will you do with that? Open a booth as
In Palace Walk Kamal remains safely ensconced within the female domain of the family
home, confined within the framework of Egypt's middle-class traditions. In many scenes, Kamal
is the sole male companion of his mother and sisters, sitting with them as they bake or engage in
the latest gossip. Indeed, it is often through Kamal's innocent and, as yet, untainted relationship
to the women in the family that we are able to get a broader portrayal of their characters outside
of their roles as servants and housekeepers.
1 Milson, Menahem. Nagib Mahfouz: The Novelist-Philosopher of Cairo. St. Martin's Press: New York, 1998,
2 Dyer, Richard. "Palace Sketches Portrait of the Artist." Boston Globe. February 1991, 70.
But where the male characters are permitted a modicum of freedom from the control and
surveillance of the father, the female characters in Palace Walk never stray far from his shadow.
Amina, al-Sayyid Ahmad's loyal wife, appears meek and submissive next to her husband, the
primary context in which we often see her. Indeed, according to Rasheed El-Nany, Amina, in
her loyalty and unquestioning obedience to her husband, is an emblem of Egyptian tradition.3
As such, Amina is a source of stability, her image throughout the novel encapsulating the value
system that frames the novel itself. This is specifically conveyed through her relationship to Al-
Sayyid Ahmad, or, more accurately, through his control over her.
At the turn of the century in Egypt, when Palace Walk begins, the dual practices of
seclusion and veiling were marginal symbols of religious devotion in an increasingly secular
society. Indeed, both were part of a number of broader cultural elements in Egyptian life at this
time that had been sacralized by Islam but persisted even after faith had somewhat disappeared.
According to Memissi, women's rights present problem for some modern Muslim men not
necessarily because of the Quran or the tradition of the Prophet, both of which are subject to
interpretation, nor the Islamic tradition, but simply because those rights conflict with the interests
of a male elite.4 For example, polygamy was (and remains) a common practice among members
of this class at this time in Egypt. Though polygamy is legally sanctioned by Islam for specific
reasons-including the forging of political alliances through marriage-it was often practiced
among upper class Egyptians at this time for reasons other than those explicitly allowed in Islam.
For example, some married more than one wife the sake of exhibiting wealth or, quite simply,
3 Milson, Nagib Mahfouz, 86.
4 Memissi, Fatima. Women and Islam: An Historical and Theological Inquiry. Oxford: Oxford University Press,
for the sake of sexual variety. In many cases, the cause of religion was used to justify additional
marriages even when they clearly did not meet the standards set by religion for polygamy5
According to Ahmad, the public sphere was the most secular sector of Egyptian society at
this time. Egypt's leaders at the turn of the century often looked up to Europe when inscripting a
public, social self.6 Western-type secular institutions were replacing traditional, religious
schools, so that by the turn of the century, the "modern" men educated in these new schools
displaced the religious trained ulama7 as the country's administrators, bureaucrats and educators.
Consequently, these new officials became transmitters of new secular scholarship and often took
a secular approach to social and political administration.8 These changes slowly but surely
trickled down to certain parts of the urban, Egyptian populace.
A family like the Abd al-Jawads would have, no doubt, been touched by such changes, if
not directly affected by them. Though the family itself can be best characterized by its
observance of tradition based in religion rather than religion itself Kamal is the first to display
the kind of explicitly secular ideology characteristic of the elite. This is perhaps best exemplified
through Kamal's education. In studying and writing about the philosophy of Bergson and the
science of Darwin, two personalities whose scholarship is anathema to religious faith, Kamal
signals his freedom from religion and the traditions based in it.
5 Though the details of polygamy remain in the background of the texts under consideration here, they are
nevertheless evident in the novels and emerge as yet another set of privileges reserved for upper-class men at this
time in Egypt.
6 Ahmed, Leila. Women and Gender in Islam. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992, 130.
7 Authoritative scholars of Islam, often trained in the principles of Islamic jurisprudence at a madrasah or Islamic
8 El-Guindi, Fadwa. "Gendered Resistance, Feminist Veiling, Islamic Feminism." The AfhadJournal. Summer
2005, Vol 22. Issue 1,67.
With this said, the practices of seclusion and veiling still prevalent among upper and
middle class urban Egyptian women at this time functioned as markers of class rather than
religion. The veil specifically marked upper and middle class Egyptian women as the putative
property of their male guardians. As such, most upper and middle class Egyptian women often
did not take up the veil freely nor were the interior religious meanings of the veil all that
important. The women who veiled at this time did so on the pain of physical violence, familial
repudiation and/or social ostracism. Meanwhile, the majority of peasant and working class
Egyptian women did not adorn the veil consistently nor were they secluded.9 This, however,
was not due to a differential in the status accorded rural women as opposed to urban, upper class
women. Rather, the differences had everything to do with social appearances and decorum and
the role of the veil in maintaining such codes among the upper and middle classes.
Rural women did not need this symbolic marker of class nor was the veil important as a
social regulator in the rural setting because the material reality of the rural setting naturally set
limits on women's freedom. The material hardship of laboring in the home and on the land added
to the physical burden of bearing and rearing multiple children were enough to keep peasant
class women "in their place." According to Nawal Al-Saadawi, women were free to walk
around with head and face uncovered, because, by the very nature of life in the village where the
"family and private patrimony remain beyond question the bases of society"10 the rural woman
had no choices; she had no freedom and therefore posed no threat to the order of things.
Indeed, after having been raised under the law of the father, marrying at the behest of her
family, moving to her husband's home "to become a servant at the disposal of all family
9 Al-Saadawi, Nawal. The NawalAl-Saadawi Reader. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997, 87.
10 De Beavoir, Simone. The Second Sex. Trans. H.M. Parshley. New York: Vintage Publishing, 1952, 94.
members," she worked in her husband's fields, procured water, looked after the livestock, took
care of the home, bore the children and withstood her husband's beating if "he felt she was being
disobedient or lazy towards him or his mother,"11 the rural woman carried her subjugation within
her. She internalized it to such a level that she no longer needed the symbolic reminder of the
veil to keep her in her place.
The reasoning for this difference in the practices of veiling and the enforcement of
seclusion between upper and middle class urban women and their rural peasant counterparts is a
function of the differential in traditional reinforcements in the two settings and not a difference
in the status of women in the two locales. Where the peasant woman worked within the narrow
confines of a village where everyone knew everyone else and any falling out of line would not
only be immediately noticed, but evident in the general state and production of the household to
which she belonged, there was no such limiting structure in the larger, anonymous city. A free-
roaming bourgeoisie woman in the city unmarked by the veil posed a threat to established
tradition and placed the family name and property in jeopardy; since she embodied her family's
male honor, an assault on her, which her movement within the male domain of the city street
unveiled invited, was regarded as tantamount to an assault on her male guardians. The veil thus
signified her ownership by the absent male guardian as well as her sexual unavailability.
In this way, Amina's character is the stereotypical middle class Egyptian woman at the
beginning of the twentieth century, 12 the embodiment of tradition El-Nany suggests. She lives in
1 Al-Saadawi, NawalAl-Saadawi Reader, 89.
12 According to Menahem Milson's astute study of names in Mahfouz's mimetic fiction, the disposition and
temperament of a character is embodied in that character's name. In the case of Amina, whose name means
"trustworthy" or "faithful," the name suits this character not only for its semantic content, but also for its allusion to
the Quranic story of Sulayman (Biblical Soloman). In Al-Kisa'I's account cited by Milson: "Sulayman had a
handmaid (jariya) called al-Amina, who never left him, and when he would enter the bathroom or would want to
seclude himself with his [other] women, he would hand her his seal for safe keeping" (209). Thus, according to
Milson, this analogy "not only reinforces the characterization of Sayyid Ahmad's wife, but discloses Mahfuz's
virtual seclusion throughout the novel, her comings and goings controlled and monitored by her
husband, al-Sayyid Ahmad, at every turn. Indeed, Amina never leaves the confines of the home
unless there is a compelling reason to do so. On the few occasions when Amina is permitted to
leave the home, she is cloaked in the full veil, her head, face and body fully covered by the long
black cloth commonly used during this period.
Palace Walk stands out critically for its astonishing expose of Egyptian women's positions
at the turn of the century. Hilary Kilpatrick presents four categories of Egyptian authors
according to their treatment of women. The first category includes authors who are not
committed to the cause of women at all. Almost all Arab writers of fiction prior to the late
nineteenth century fall under this heading. The writers in this category are often more concerned
with depicting the larger political problems of their societies, such as poverty, mass illiteracy,
corruption and injustice. These writers then typically have little interest in evoking the question
of women or their liberation from Islamic and other traditional norms that typically discriminate
against women. The second group includes what Kilpatrick calls the conservative/traditional
writers. These writers depict women but only to reinforce religious or traditional gender norms.
Mahmud Taimur is the exemplary representative of writers in this group. The third group of
writers often depicts women fundamentally different than they do men. These writers often treat
their female characters as objects for male sexual gratification. Yusuf Idris best exemplifies this
group. The last category of writers includes those whom Kilpatrick considers social reformers
because they promote women's rights and highlight and/or articulate issues that are important to
women through their fiction. These writers are committed to new, positive portrayals of women
critical attitude towards the womanizing man, be he the canonized Solomon or the contemporary Cairene (209).
This also, I would suggest, reinforce Amina's archetypical role as middle-class matriarch in the novel.
outside of their religious or traditional roles. Early twentieth-century fiction and non-fiction
writers Al-Tahtair and Qasim Amin are the pioneers of this last group.13
With this said, Ayo Kehinde simultaneously locates Mahfouz within the
traditional/conservative and reformist categories of authors of Arabic fiction concerned with the
issues of women. The traditional/conservative author is characterized, according to Kehinde, by
a belief that "women's role in society is confined to the kitchen and other domestic chores,
including procreation and childcare."14 For Kehinde, Mahfouz's presentation of women takes on
the traditional historical form. Most of his female characters appear meek, obedient, long-
suffering and the sole keeper of custom and the home, placing him within the conservative
category. 15 Yet Mahfouz's novels also promote women's rights and consider "the key challenges
facing gender equality and tolerance in his works."16 This would then place him among the
social reformists, who "understand the previous enslaved position of women and their ... struggle
for freedom from the yoke of tradition and religion imposed on them by men."17
Kehinde's characterization of Mahfouz is an apt one. While Mahfouz does not directly
address the issue of women's rights or offer an explicit critique of the traditions that routinely
deny women their rights, his depictions of Egyptian tradition exposes its foibles without directly
attacking the tradition itself. Mahfouz's depictions of Amina and Jalila perhaps best illustrate his
situation within the conservative and reformist categories. For example, though Amina is the
13 Kilpatrick, Hilary. The Modern E. -i,nl, Novel: A Study in Social Criticism. London: Ithaca Press, 1974, 128.
14 Kehinde, Ayo. "The contemporary Arabic novel as social history: urban decadence, politics and women in
Naguib Mahfouz's fiction." Studies in the Humanities. summer 2003. Vol. 30. Issue 1, 144.
15 Kehinde, "The contemporary Arabic novel," 144.
16 Kehinde, "The contemporary Arabic novel," 144.
17 Kehinde, "The contemporary Arabic novel," 144.
stereotypical woman in this tradition, Nadine Gordimer defends Mahfouz's depiction of Amina
from Western feminists who have attacked his depictions of female characters.
Gordimer claims that Mahfouz's insight into the socio-sexual mores of this tradition, "the
seraglio-prison that distorted the lives of the women members of the Abd al-Jawad family [is] a
protest far more powerful than any of those who have accused him of literary chauvinism."18
According to Gordimer, Mahfouz's achievement lies in the subtle way he opens what appear to
be closed encounters. By subtly changing focus from protagonist to someone the reader has
barely noticed, such as Amina, he reveals a new dimension of comprehension and emotion not
available to the novel's main characters. 19
On the other hand, Egyptian novelist and physician Nawal Al-Saadawi argues that though
Mahfouz betrays a political progressiveness, including the promotion of sustainable human
development in the face of global trends and challenges,20 he "nevertheless upholds traditional
Arab values of judging women's honor by the type of sexual relations they have with men." 21
According to Al-Saadawi, Mahfouz's depictions are stereotyped in two categories of woman
institutionalized by the patriarchal system: the sacred pure mother or the prostitute."22
Al-Saadawi's last point is especially pertinent in Mahfouz's depictions of Amina and
Jalila: the figure of the saintly woman incites the figure of the prostitute. Both are caught in the
web of patriarchal exploitation that is the hell of women's lives at this time in Egypt. In Amina
18 Gordimer, Nadine. "The Dialogue of Late Afternoon." Echoes of an Autobiography. New York: Double Day,
19 Gordimer, Nadine. '; -a,,i- and Being. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994, 49.
20 Kehinde, "The contemporary Arabic novel," 144.
21 qtd in Grace, Daphne. Woman in the Muslin Mask: Veiling and Identity in Postcolonial Literature. London: Pluto
Press, 2004, 81.
22 qtd. in Grace, Woman in the Muslin Mask, 81.
we encounter the traditional female figure, Al-Saadawi's "pure mother"-the meek and
submissive wife who stays awake every night waiting for her husband to return from his
frolicking. In Jalila, we get the common prostitute and mistress. Both depictions are limited to a
rather superficial analysis of the female social condition of this time period rather than a deeper
realization of the tragedy of that position.23 However, in both cases, an otherwise irretrievable
female subaltern identity is simultaneously recreated so as to expose rather than a duplicate the
phallocentric discourse of the time period.
However, Jalila becomes an instrumental figure in Palace Walk. She explicitly indicts the
system that shunts her to the margins of society and demonstrates that women can refuse the
religious and traditional stereotypes assigned to them. Indeed, it is through Jalila that Mahfouz
unambiguously betrays the progressive stance Kehinde assigns to him as well as the limits of his
critique. That such an important critique as that which Jalila offers emerges from a character
marginal the plot of the novel suggests that Mahfouz is willing to criticize the sexism of his
society without evincing a will to change it. It should also be noted that though Palace Walk is
set against the background of anti-colonial upheaval and documents particular political uprisings
in meticulous detail, Mahfouz makes no mention of the analogous feminist movement taking
place at the same time, nor does he acknowledge the thousands of women involved in the anti-
British protests he does document.
There are many moments in Amina's and the other female characters' lives in Palace Walk
that highlight the situation of middle class women in turn-of the century Egypt, I will focus on
the one instance when Amina leaves the family home without her husband's permission in order
to demonstrate the role of class in mandates for seclusion and veiling. While Amina maintains a
23 Grace, The Woman in the Muslin Mask, 80-81.
degree of seclusion through the veil in this scene, I will demonstrate that even such a limited
degree of freedom as that which Amina explores in her pilgrimage to the local shrine represents
an irreparable rupture to the patriarchal economy depicted in the novel. That her "proper"
conduct and observance of the veil during the pilgrimage fails to shield her from the ensuing
disaster recalls patriarchal fear of fitna. In order to contrast Amina's treatment as a middle-class
matriarch, I will then focus on the wedding scene in which Jalila, a Cairo prostitute, is able, by
virtue of her marginal status, to radically expose the men for their hypocritical treatment of the
I will first establish the middle class status of the Abd al-Jawad family to illustrate the
importance of regulating female sexuality to maintaining both family patrimony, which includes
women and their labor, and class status. Next, in order to disassociate the function of the veil
from its religious significance and associate it with class, I will juxtapose the veiling practices
and role of seclusion between middle class and working and service class women observed in the
text. I will specifically contrast the above mentioned treatment of Amina with the treatment of
Jalila, a singer and former lover of al-Sayyid Ahmad; and Umm Hanafi, the Abd al-Jawad's
The Abd al-Jawad family is a family of Cairo merchants whose home and business are
situated on Palace Walk in Al-Gamaliya, the trading center of old Cairo. Al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd
al-Jawad is the proprietor of a lucrative grocery that he inherited from his father. Though not an
educated man, Al-Sayyid Ahmed is, by 1920s Egyptian standards, a manifestly wealthy one. His
years of friendship with Egypt's elite gentry, government officials and attorneys provide him
with the kind of experience and social acumen he would never have gleaned from a formal
education. Al-Sayyid learns the undocumented and unreported details of Egyptian politics and
civil service from these influential friends and therefore knows how to conduct himself so as to
maximize his potential business and political gains. Indeed al-Sayyid Ahmad is known
throughout the al-Gamaliya district for his gentility and distinctly upper-class demeanor.
Visitors regularly stop by the shop to:
exchange greetings and enjoy one of [al-Sayyid Ahmad's] pleasantries or witty
sayings...his conversation had brilliant touches relating to the popular culture that he had
absorbed... from reading the newspaper and befriending an elite group... [indeed] his
native wit, graciousness, charm and status as a prosperous merchant qualified [al-Sayyid
Ahmad] to associate with [this group] on an equal footing.24
Al-Sayyid Ahmad's patriarchal power is invoked through his control over women, specifically
through the mandatory practices of secluding and veiling his female family members.
The seclusion of these women, who embody the family wealth by virtue of their family
name and/or affiliation, suggests to the outside world that the family is wealthy and prosperous,
implies what is at stake in ensuring the female fidelity and honor. The importance of seclusion to
maintaining family honor is thus brought into relief when Amina defies the basic premise of the
rules of seclusion, goes out on her own without either her husband or a an adult blood-related
male guardian and is consequently banished from the family home by her husband. It is not
simply the act of defying her husband that represents such an affront to his dignity, but rather
that she threatens the family name and patrimony when she does: she goes out into the masculine
realm unaccompanied by a man and without the permission of her husband, placing the family
reputation and property in jeopardy.
The fear of fitna, which was posed by the visible presence of women, added an element of
vested communal interest to the seclusion of women, an interest, which was religiously
sanctioned. Not only was a woman's modesty supposed to be guarded by men, who did so in
24 Mahfouz, Naguib. Palace Walk. New York: First Anchor Books, 1991, 37. Subsequently references to this text
will be made parenthetically in the body of my text.
order to guard the honor of their family, but women themselves were seen to bear a religious
obligation to uphold their own modesty. Part of a woman's duty was to prevent fitna, to prevent
men from feeling aroused, for if a man misbehaved as a result of arousal by a woman's physical
presence, she, personally, was to blame.
Furthermore, this was considered to be a woman's duty, not just toward her own family,
but also toward society at large. Ibn al-Hajj, an Islamic scholar who helped establish the
foundations of Islamic jurisprudence in fourteenth century Cairo, suggests that in order for a
woman not to cause havoc in society, she should leave the house three times in her lifetime:
when she marries; when her parents die; and at her own funeral. Any contact between men and
women was deemed as potentially dangerous, as seen in another of his examples, where he
warns the water-carrier to lower his gaze upon entering a house, due to the possibility of seeing
an unveiled woman. A spontaneous glance, in this case totally without forethought, was quite
naturally assumed to lead towards seduction.
In their socialization of men and women, the medieval societies of the Islamic world
presumed that the sexes needed to coexist. Nevertheless, men and women needed to interact in
prescribed ways. This was based on an ideology that assumed that women were seductresses and
men were susceptible to seduction. Based on an assumption of their innate abilities, men were
accorded the responsibility to set limits for women, who were considered to be below them.
Jurists based this assumption on the Quranic verses that state: "men are a degree above
women."25 While medieval jurists' emphasis on fitna must have affected attitudes toward other
concepts relating to women's modesty, these discussions were not by any means original or
25 The Holy Quran. Trans. Arthur Arbeny. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1964, 2:228
exclusive to the societies of that time. These examples provide some insight into the underlying
issues of gender ideology in this scene.
The scene opens on the early spring morning when al-Sayyid Ahmad sets off for his annual
trip to Port Said, a port city on the Mediterranean 105 miles away from Cairo and the family
home. Al-Sayyid Ahmad would be away for a few days, providing the family with a long and
much needed reprieve from "their oppressively prim life" (164). The women are especially
excited about the freedom they would enjoy "safe from their guardian's eye," as "they would be
able, if they so desired, to get an innocent breath of fresh air. Khadija and Aisha wondered if
they might slip over to [the neighbor's] house in the evening to spend an hour there having fun
and amusing themselves" (164).
Amina, out of internalized submission to the law of her husband, on the other hand, wants
to make sure that the family persists with its usual routine. But even in this vein, "she was more
concerned to keep from vexing [al-Sayyid Ahmad] than she was convinced that he was right to
be so severe and stern" (165). Thus, when Yasin, Amina's stepson, suggests that she take
advantage of al-Sayyid Ahmad's absence to visit the shrine of Al-Husayn, she is ripe for the
taking. Amina is momentarily exhilarated at the thought of defying al-Sayyid Ahmad's law.
She is also nervous and fearful of the possibility of freedom:
Her heart pounded and the effect could be seen in her blush. She lowered her head to hide
how deeply she was affected. Her heart responded to the call with a force that exploded
suddenly in her soul. She was taken by surprise. No one around her could have
anticipated this, not even Yasin himself. It was as though an earthquake had shaken a land
that had never experienced one before. She did not understand how her heart could answer
this appeal, how her eyes could look beyond the limits of what was allowed, or how she
could consider the adventure possible and even tempting, no-irresistible. (165)
Indeed, in order to carry out the action, Amina must justify it by referring to a power higher than
Of course, since it was such a sacred pilgrimage, a visit to the shrine of al-Al-Husayn
appeared a powerful excuse for the radical leap her will was making, but that was not the
only factor influencing her soul. Deep inside her, imprisoned currents yearning for release
responded to this call in the same way that eager, aggressive instincts answer the call for a
war proclaimed to be in defense of freedom and peace. (165).
Amina's breach of al-Sayyid Ahmad's law represents an irrepararable rupture in the patriarchal
economy of the family home. Though Amina leaves the home in full veil, the veil does little to
reign in the potential of fitna. Amina's veil simply reveals her class to the predatory onlooker-
the wealth attached to her name- while her appearance on the street unaccompanied by a man
suggests sexual availability because she is not supposed to appear on the street and, least of all,
alone. Therefore, despite her marital status, or, perhaps because of it, Amina's emergence on the
street displays a willingness to transgress the understood rules of proper behavior. This
willingness, then, implies in the eyes of the knowing onlooker a willingness to transgress other
rules as well. We see the evidence of this silent code in the behavior of other married women in
the district, including the neighbor's wife who has an affair with Al-Sayyid Ahmad and, later on,
Amina's new willingness to transgress the patriarchal economy thus represents a
fundamental threat to Al-Sayyid Ahmad's family patrimony: it is beyond his control. Amina's
venture into the streets affords other men the gaze upon his wife in whatever limited scope. That
Amina is veiled does little to mitigate his distress, for the veil in this context could, perhaps,
enhance the pleasure of the onlooker: it not only betrays her wealth and status, but also affords
her an aura of mystery and auspiciousness that is both suspenseful and alluring. Indeed, the
presence of the veil invokes the question: what is under it? Indeed, the fascination of the veil lies
in the prospect of unveiling. Al-Sayyid Ahmad understands this well from his own sexual
escapades on the streets of Cairo.
Indeed, because her actions are so threatening to the family name, Amina understands the
gravity of her actions. The magnitude of her crime is first brought home to her when she is
confronted by the strange male presence of the streets:
The sight of men staring at her horrified her, especially the policeman, who was in front of
the others. They were a clear challenge and affront to a long life spent in seclusion and
concealment from strangers. She imagined she saw the image of Al-Sayyid Ahmad rising
above all the other men. He seemed to be studying her face with cold, stony eyes,
threatening her with more evil than she could imagine. (173)
The dread Amina felt on the street is carried over into the family home when al-Sayyid Ahmad
questions her about the injury to her shoulder. She is afraid of her husband. He shows initial
care and kindness towards Amina during her recovery, taking care that his face revealed nothing
of his internal agitation, prolonging Amina's fear and agony. Meanwhile, Amina "bowed her
head humbly like a defendant waiting for the verdict to be pronounced" (183).
It is clear from both al-Sayyid Ahmad's behavior and Amina's reaction that al-Sayyid
Ahmad has all the power. His privilege as the family patriarch is compounded here by the added
rights of the being the one wronged. He does not need to react right away. His silence speaks
for him and Amina understands:
His deliberate silence unsettled her. She began asking herself again whether he still
harbored some anger. Anxiety was pricking her heart once more... The man was thinking
with such speed and concentration that he had no taste for anything else. It was not the
kind of thought that emerges at the spur of the moment. It was a type of stubborn, long-
lasting that had stayed with him for the past few days [since his discovery of Amina's
From this moment on, Amina understands that her honor and the honor of her family would be
subject to questioning. Prior to the exchange in which al-Sayyid Ahmad finally questions Amina
about her transgression, she already finds herself defenseless against his anticipated accusations.
She silently acknowledges her mistake as she prepares herself for the ensuing confrontation:
"What could she do now that she was the guilty person?" (193). As a woman guilty of
transgressing the laws of patriarchy, Amina has even fewer rights than she had had before.
When al-Sayyid Ahmad later asks her about the motivation behind this transgression,
Amina admits her crime:
She whispered in troubled gasps, "I take refuge with God, sir. My error was a big one"
[Al-Sayyid Ahmad asks] "How could you have committed such a grave error?... Was it
because I left town for a single day?"
In a trembling voice, its tones swayed by the convulsions of her body, she replied, "I have
committed an error. It is up to you to forgive me"
[al-Sayyid Ahmad] shook his head fiercely as though saying, "There's no point trying to
argue." Then he raised his eyes to give her an angry, sullen look. In a voice that made it
clear that he would tolerate no discussion, he said, "I just have one thing to say: Leave my
house immediately." (193)
In this scene, not only does Amina acknowledge her mistake by asking forgiveness of both God
and al-Sayyid Ahmad, two entities who are interchangeable in Amina's eyes, but in doing so, she
also attests to her husband's right to both control and discipline her. She offers no excuse or
explanation for her transgression, because none will do. It is her husband's privilege to keep or
banish her for her crime.
Mahfouz makes the extent of al-Sayyid Ahmad's patriarchal privilege clear in an exchange
between the father and his son, Yasin. The discussion between them emerges when Yasin, as the
first chink in the crumbling patriarchal edifice, fails to adequately wield his authority with his
wife, Zaynab. Al-Sayyid Ahmad recalls Amina's transgression to remind Yasin of the limits of
female freedom in this economy:
Don't you know that I forbid my wife to leave the house even if only to visit Al-Husayn?
How could you have given in to the temptation to take your wife to a bawdy show and
stayed there with her until after midnight? You fool, you're propelling yourself and your
wife into the abyss. What demon has hold of you? (314)
The anger and urgency evident in al-Sayyid Ahmad's tone underscores the gravity of patriarchal
anxiety surrounding questions of family propriety and legitimacy. The "abyss" al-Sayyid
Ahmad refers to is a vague reference to the notion of fitna discussed earlier. In Yasin's wife's
case, as in the earlier case with Amina, any leeway afforded women threatens to send the family
down a slippery slope toward illegitimacy. And questions about paternal legitimacy and
patriarchal authority necessarily undercut the said patriarch's reputation and masculinity.
Therefore, only possession by a "demon" would lead a man in this economy to allow his wife to
Grace further underscores the gravity of female transgression by relating Amina's outing to
Freud's notion of the uncanny. Though Grace argues that it is Amina's subsequent banishment
from the home which represents the "un-homely" or the "not-at-home" aspect of the uncanny in
this scene, I would suggest that it is in light of the middle class imperatives to seclude and veil
women that renders Amina's outing itself uncanny. According to Grace, Freud argued that the
uncanny "stood for everything that ought to have remained hidden but has come to light."26
However, this is only true of Amina's unauthorized pilgrimage to the shine of al-Husayn-- not
her banishment, which was a rather common practice in this tradition. Rather, it is because she is
the wife of a well-known middle class merchant that she should have remained secluded in the
house. Her pilgrimage to the local shrine represents that which should have remained hidden but
came to light.27
At this point, it must be emphasized that the middle-class behavioral code Amina breaches
in her outing is nuanced, subtle and tacitly understood. It is based on an unspoken assumption of
26 Grace, Woman in the Muslin Mask, 82.
27 Grace, Woman in the Muslin Mask, 82.
woman's inherent untrustworthiness and functions to maintain the integrity of the home and
family. According to this code as explicated by Osman, "a woman has a right to do what she
wants, as long as it does not interfere with her obligations towards her family."28 The vague
nature of this code, then, means that a woman's freedom-her "rights" balanced against her
"obligations"-is subject to interpretation. In early twentieth-century Egypt, a woman's
obligation was to stay home and obey her husband. In return, she was entitled to financial
support and legal protection.
Amina's subsequent banishment from the family home is thus not a drastic measure, but
rather, from al-Sayyid Ahmad's point of view, a necessary one. Al-Sayyid Ahmad must ensure
not only that Amina will never breach the prescribed rules of behavior again, but he must also
ensure that Amina once again understands her subordinate place in the home. Amina's
banishment is thus meant demonstrate her subordinate position while simultaneously recouping
al-Sayyid Ahmad's authority. Indeed, the depth of Amina's crime is evident in the degree to
which al-Sayyid Ahmad's pride is wounded by news of Amina's transgression:
His mental struggle had begun the moment the woman tearfully confessed her offense... At
the first instant he had not believed his ears. As he started to recover from the shock, he
had become aware of the loathsome truth that was an affront to his pride and dignity
because of his deep anxiety for this woman... (194).
The fear driving al-Sayyid Ahmad begs the question that if a woman belongs only to herself,
upon what would the family patrimony be built? How could class and the wealth and property
upon which it was based be marked and divided? In considering various punishments for
Amina's crime, al-Sayyid Ahmad is motivated not by anger or vengeance, but by a desire to
restore control and personal honor. He is unwilling to forgive her for:
28 Osman, Ghada. "Back to Basics: The Discourse of Muslim Feminism in Contemporary Egypt." Women and
Language. Volume 26. Issue 1.76
If he forgave her and yielded to the appeal of affection, which he longed to do, then his
prestige, honor, personal standards and set of values would be compromised. He would
lose control of his family, and the bonds holding it together would dissolve. He could not
lead them unless he did so with firmness and rigor. In short, if he forgave her, he would no
longer be Ahmad Abd al-Jawad but some other person he could never agree to become.
The gravity of Amina's transgression and subsequent punishment bring into sharp relief the
absence of both practices of seclusion among the female entertainers in the novel, further
highlighting the role of class in the regulation of sexual politics. For example, during Aisha's
wedding, all the women, save Jalila, the female singer and prostitute, are segregated from the
men. Jalila sings and dances with the men in their quarters, laughing, playing, telling licentious
jokes, and even mocking the men. In the midst of a drunken revelry, Jalila ridicules the men for
their arrogance and their overbearing control over women. Indeed, in recalling her own father,
who was the head of a Quranic primary school, and her defiance of his authority when she was a
child, Jalila implicitly indicts the men around her for invoking the same kind of control over their
He was a man with a jealous sense of honor. But I grew up with a natural tendency to be
playful, as though I had been suckled on coquetry in the cradle. When I laughed on the top
floor of our house, the hearts of men in the street would be troubled. The moment he heard
my voice, he would rain blows upon me and call me the worst names. But what point was
there in trying to discipline a girl who was so gifted in the arts of love, music and
flirtation? His attempts were in vain. My father went to paradise and its delights while I
was fated to adopt the epithets he hurled at my banner in life. (266)
When Jalila's words fail to get a rise out of the crowd, she confronts its leader, al-Sayyid Ahmad,
with a direct attack on his character. Unashamedly looking al-Sayyid Ahmad in the face, an
unforgivable offense had it been committed by any other woman, Jalila exposes his hypocrisy to
Noting al-Sayyid Ahmad's apparent displeasure at seeing her, his former lover, while his
family is upstairs, Jalila, to the surprise of everyone present, accosts him with the ironic tone and
demeanor of a person playfully threatening to expose a dangerous secret:
Jalila clapped her hands together and said almost as a reprimand, "Is this the best welcome
you have for me?" Then she addressed [al-Sayyid Ahmad's] companions: "Gentlemen,
you're my witnesses. Observe how this man, who used to be unhappy if he couldn't stick
the tip of his mustache in my belly button, can't bear the sight of me?" (268)
When her innuendos and jokes still do not get the response Jalila is after, she confronts al-Sayyid
Ahmad directly and asks him the one question on everyone's mind-including the reader's-- but
for which no one has the courage to pose: "Why do you pretend to be pious around your family
when you're a pool of depravity?" (268).
Jalila's words are significant here not only for their content, but also for the liberty with
which they are spoken. Though Jalila is slightly inebriated here and though her outburst is
motivated by jealousy of al-Sayyid Ahmad's new mistress, the words she speaks are true and
everyone knows it. Like the knowing fool in one of Shakespeare's plays, Jalila, by virtue of her
marginal status, knows the truth and can speak it. Yet because she speaks from the margins, like
the Shakespearean fool, no one believes her or, at least, takes her seriously.
Indeed, Jalila's speech and its inconsequence to the men who listen to it signal,
paradoxically, Jalila's marginal status in the sexual economy of the novel. This is evident in al-
Sayyid Ahmad's reaction to her outburst. Though irritated, he is clearly unprovoked. Al-Sayyid
Ahmad's power and authority, even if they are hypocritically wielded, will never be questioned:
Even assuming the worst, there was no reason for him to be alarmed. [His family's]
subservience to him and his domination over them both assured that no convulsion would
shake them, not even this scandal. Moreover, he had never assumed it was out of the
question that one of his sons, or even the whole family, might discover the truth about him,
but he had not been overly worried about that, because of his confidence in his power.
After al-Sayyid Ahmad recovers from the initial surprise of being questioned publicly
about his sexual affairs, he becomes slightly aroused by the scene. Despite the momentary
The event had also pleased and flattered his pride in his sexual appeal. For a woman like
Jalila to seek him out to greet him, tease him, or even to make fun of his new sweetheart
was a real event that would have a great impact on the circles where he passed his nights.
It was an event with far-reaching significance for a man like him who enjoyed nothing so
much as love, music and companionship. (269)
As a prostitute, Jalila is a mere body. Al-Sayyid Ahmad reflects on his relationship with her:
Despite his great number of amorous adventures... al-Sayyid Ahmad only experienced
lust... Over the course of time, his conjugal love was affected by calm new elements of
affection and familiarity, but in essence it continued to be based on bodily desire...No
woman was anything more than a body to him. (99)
Secluding the prostitute class would considerably threaten the power upon which male
supremacy depends. Not only would seclusion and veiling render these women inaccessible to
men, thus stripping them of the masculine privilege of sexual freedom and power, but, in making
these women auspicious and honorable, the practices of seclusion and veiling would lose their
significance as indications of upper class membership.
The tacit agreement between female entertainers like Jalila and their male patrons centers
on this understanding of differential gender and class power. Therefore, women like Jalila and
al-Sayyid Ahmad's current mistress, Zanuba, are allowed a degree of freedom and even material
prosperity without posing a threat to the gender power differential. In other words, though Jalila
may not have the power behind her words to overturn the gender inequalities or even amend her
own situation, she is nonetheless a revolutionary character in Arabic fiction generally and in the
Mahfouz canon specifically. She has physical charm and mental abilities that are comparable to
men. In this scene, she uses them to best the men and ridicule their leader, al-Sayyid Ahmad.
Yet, within the social and sexual economy of the novel, the reader is a conscious of the fact that
while she may be a rebel, Jalila is still nothing other than a mere "whore" to the power she rebels
The significance of seclusion and veiling as markers of class is brought into further relief
when we examine the absence of both practices among the working class women represented in
the novel. The character of Umm-Hanafi, the Abd al-Jawad family maid, best exemplifies this.
Despite being exceptionally plump and voluptuous, two features that are praised as the epitomes
of female beauty throughout the novel, Umm Hanafi, in contrast to Amina and her daughters, is
neither secluded nor veiled. Rather, Umm Hanafi is free to come and go as she pleases, her
actions and movements are unmonitored throughout the text: she is the family's female
messenger and representative to the outside world. As such, she must abide by certain codes of
behavior, but, as the maid, she does not bear the burden of the family name and honor as female
members of the family-do.
Thus, on one occasion, Umm Hanafi is allowed to sleep outside in a vestibule leading to
the house, her heavy body prostrate on a cot in a sexually vulnerable position:
When he [Yasin] had taken two steps toward the outer door at the end of the courtyard, he
noticed a feeble glow, which came from a lamp sitting on a meat block in front of the oven
room. He looked at it in surprise until he spotted nearby a body flung down on the ground,
illuminated by its light. He recognized Umm Hanafi, who had evidently chosen to sleep
out in the open to escape the stifling atmosphere of the oven room... He saw her stretched
out on her back. Her right leg was bent, creating a pyramid in the air with the edge of her
dress, which clung to her knee. At the same time, the bare skin of a section of her left
thigh near the knee was revealed. The opening that was formed where her dress stretched
between her raised knee and the other leg, extended on the ground, was drowned in
Shortly after spotting Umm Hanafi in this vulnerable position, Yasin attempts to sexually assault
her. Yet, for this crime, Yasin is not punished, for according to the prevailing economy in the
novel, the assault is merely on Umm Hanafi's body, which, by virtue of her class, is not
connected to any type of patrimony. And since it is the patrimonial connection that lends a
woman's body significance, Yasin has committed no crime in his assault on Umm Hanafi's
The first question of responsibility in this attack is directed toward Umm Hanafi: "Al
Sayyid Ahmad mentioned his son's blunder to his wife and asked her in some detail about Umm
Hanafi's morals" (280). Yet she does not bear the usual stigma of the assault, which would cast
her as the provocateur of Yasin's aggression. What happens to her is inconsequential to the
family. There is no discussion about either her culpability in the matter or her victimization.
She simply does not matter.
Thus, the scene of Umm Hanafi's attack is crucial for my argument because of the
connection it reveals between upper and middle class patriarchal fears of fitna in the family and
the practices of secluding and veiling women. Clearly, then, in the case of Umm Hanafi these
rules do not apply. The only concern garnered from Yasin's attack on Umm Hanafi regards
questions of the difference in status between Yasin and his sexual target in this attack.
That the practices of seclusion and veiling were the mandates of an elite patriarchy
guarding class interests in turn of the century Egypt does not, however, close the book on these
practices. Indeed, by the 1950s as Egypt was giving way to a rising socialist system headed by
Nasser, this elite class had lost much of its political and social power. Nasser redistributed land
holdings, nationalized Egypt's major industries, schools and universities as well as the health-
care system. Thus, what had once been the exclusive domain of the Egyptian upper and middle
classes became accessible to everyone. The role and meaning of the veil and, even more so,
seclusion therefore lost much of their class-based significance. The family names and patrimony
they were meant to claim and protect had vanished.29
29 Ahmad, Women and Gender, 208-209
Though the practice of seclusion largely died out after this period, that of veiling continued
and, by the 1970s, grew. This new veil was the traditional veil turned on its head: rather than an
instrument of oppression imposed on women, the new veil became an instrument of resistance, a
symbol of female agency. In the vacuum of traditional and religious power that characterized
this transitional period in Egypt's history after independence, veiling thus became a consequence
of a woman's individual free will rather than of custom, tradition or direct coercion. It is this
element of choice that, I will argue, becomes paramount in the persistence of the veil after the
fall of the Egyptian elite classes. Indeed, women will freely take up the practice of veiling as
part of the larger Islamicizing movements in Egypt that replace class-based traditions.30
30 Ahmad, Women and Gender, 216-218
PALACE OF DESIRE AND SUGAR STREET: VEIL AS POSTCOLONIAL RESPONSE
Islam 'i .. from boundary problems, invasions by the West, trespassing and changing authority
thresholds. These insecurities of identity are taken out on women. Women I ,, 'i,. Ij-,,g; in
conservative and radical Islamist movements strike a new 'patriarchal bargain' in uncertain
times. Deniz Kandyoti, "Bargaining with Patriarchy."
The sense of hope and anticipation that colored Egypt's story in Palace Walk dissipates
into an atmosphere of hopelessness and despair in Palace of Desire. This is brought about by the
failure of the 1919 revolution against the British and the imprisonment of Sa'd Zaghlul, Egypt's
political representative in the movement for independence. From that moment on, life for Egypt
is never the same. This is reflected through the devastating changes and tragedies visited upon
the Abd al-Jawads.
The public events of the Cairo streets overshadow life in the Abd al-Jawad home.1 The
afternoon coffee hour once filled with innocent chat and sibling bantering is dominated by
political talk and news of the spreading violence in the Cairo streets. Kamal reports his teachers'
and classmates' political positions while Fahmy and Yasin squabble over the extent of the
damage done to Egypt by the British presence. Even al-Sayyid Ahmad, who throughout Palace
Walk seems impervious to the politics of the street, is affected by the growing violence.2 On the
night that Zaghlul is exiled, al-Sayyid Ahmad's ritual evening revelry is scarred by the recent
events; we are told that for the first time in twenty-five years the gathering was "mirthless and
reigned over by silence."2 When the British decide to set up camp in the al-Husayn district right
outside the family home, the violence of the foreign occupation of Egypt is allegorized through
the individual: the formidable patriarch is arrested at gun-point and forced to fill a trench dug by
1 El-Nany, Naguib Mahfouz, 74.
rebels; Fahmy's sweetheart, Maryam, is courted by a British soldier; and Yasin is attacked by
local worshippers when he is suspected of spying for the British.3 Through these individual
encounters with colonialism, we see the demoralizing effect it has on Egypt at large.
The First World War signaled major changes for Mahfouz in the traditional Egyptian
family structure. When Fahmy refuses to comply with al-Sayyid Ahmad's order to stop his
nationalistic activities, he acts as a modern son. In this example, Fahmy is not merely
disobedient; he is inspired by moral principles that Ahmad can neither share nor overrule through
the force of personal authority. Such a conflict between generations was almost inconceivable in
the more static society of earlier periods, when both father and son would have been similarly
attuned to the traditional loyalties.4 Once the precedent of defiance has been set, however, one
expects repetitions to recur with increasing frequency and diminishing justification. As Ahmad's
power diminishes, family relations are on their way towards modernity.
When Fahmy dies at the hands of the British at end of Palace Walk, the Abd al-Jawad
family, once shielded from the brutality of the British occupation, is cast into disarray and slowly
begins to fall apart. The dissolution of the family order, then, represents the dissolution of
Egyptian social order and the breakdown of tradition in the face of the overwhelming power of
Westernization and modernization. With the death of the old way of life, which is represented
by the first generation of Abd al-Jawads, a socio-political and cultural vacuum is created. The
subsequent battle for Egypt's identity creates opportunity for the return to an even older past than
that which is represented by the patriarch. In the struggle for Egypt's future, the Muslim
Brotherhood arises by advocating a return to Islam's past.
2El-Nany, Naguib Mahfouz, 74.
3 El-Nany, Naguib Mahfouz, 81.
The most dramatic affect of Egypt's colonization by the British, however, is its
radicalizing affect on Egypt's youth-- once again, a portrait of Egypt's future illustrated through
allegory. Egypt's hopes for independence and an authentically Egyptian future are embodied in
the character of Fahmy Abd al-Jawad, the only member of the second generation of Abd al-
Jawads with any potential. Fahmy, the intelligent, industrious and devoted son, is nothing like
his father, al-Sayyid Ahmad, who embodies middle-class Egyptian tradition. Rather, he
represents a new Egypt, one that is forward-looking, politically and socially progressive and
culturally innovative. Fahmy represents the hope of the Abd al-Jawad family and the hope of
Egypt in the first novel. Fahmy also represents the last of a generation; after him, Egypt's youth
will be hopelessly caught in spiritual crisis and, as a result, will become radically violent and
In Palace ofDesire, as in Palace Walk, the interaction between public and private makes
an examination of the social and political changes as they are registered by individual characters
a useful way of narrating Egypt's transition into independence. Indeed, the larger social,
political and cultural conflicts Egypt faces between past and present are manifest in Palace of
Desire through the character of Kamal. In his 1993 study of the works of Naguib Mahfouz,
Rasheed El-Nany documents the social and cultural shifts that take place in The Cairo Trilogy
through the psychology of individual characters. El-Nany rightly posits Kamal in the center of
the Egyptian dilemma between tradition on the one hand and modernization and innovation on
the other. Kamal's spiritual crisis represents that of an entire generation and results from this
exposure to... influences] that [their] parents' generation did not experience. This
influence was mainly the influence of modern Western thought disseminated through the
modernization of the educational system which had already taken root in the 1920s and
1930s when Kamal was growing up.4
The tension between past and present is brought into dramatic relief in the scene in which Kamal
is scolded by his father for having published an article advancing Darwin's theory of evolution.
For al-Sayyid Ahmad, who represents Egypt's past and, thus, tradition, that Kamal would even
interrogate the issue of evolution represents an act of heresy against God and, because religion is
used to bolster the law of the father upon which his authority is based, an act of treachery against
him. By questioning the authority of the father, then, Kamal, like Fahmy before him, acts like a
For Mahfouz, however, more is at stake than paternal authority in the household. What is
at stake, rather, is what al-Sayyid Ahmad's unquestioned authority represents: class-based
patriarchal tradition. The ideological shifts registered in Kamal and introduced through his article
represent a fatal threat to the supreme harmony of al-Sayyid Ahmad's generation. Indeed,
though al-Sayyid Ahmad imposes order in the home through the unquestionable authority he
wields over his family, he and the family home perform what El-Nany calls "a masterly rendition
of a culture at peace with itself .[free] of inner conflict."5 What Kamal has done is introduce
change that cannot be accommodated.
But al-Sayyid Ahmad in this dispute with Kamal is merely delaying the inevitable.
Already by the opening of Palace of Desire al-Sayyid Ahmad is a mere shell of his former self,
his physical and spiritual decay a symbol of the decay of his generation and their way of life.
This change in his constitution is first brought home to al-Sayyid Ahmad on the first occasion
that he attempts to take up his former life after having abstained from his usual carousing after
Fahmy's death. As he scans the room and looks at the faces of his friends and former lovers, al-
Sayyid Ahmad realizes that more than time has passed:
4 El-Nany, Naguib Mahfouz,82
Something had come over them that was almost more easily perceived by his emotions
than his senses. No doubt it was associated with the process of aging. Perhaps his friends
had not noticed it since they had not been separated from the women as he had. Had he not
been affected by age the same way? He felt sad, and his spirits flagged. A man's most
telling mirror is a friend who returns after a long absence. But how could he pinpoint this
By noting the physical changes in his friends after an absence of five years, al-Sayyid Ahmad,
though not politically astute or socially conscious, intuits the larger changes that have taken
place in Egyptian society. It is not simply that al-Sayyid Ahmad feels his own life passing away
in this scene, but senses the demise of a tradition as embodied in his own person. The
harmonious order and predictability of his youth are slowly being replaced by the turbulence of a
changing social and political order. Instead of the joy and exhilaration he would have felt during
such a gathering in the days of 1918, al-Sayyid Ahmad is overcome by a sense of alienation and
a foreboding sense of loss.
For Kamal, the traditions of the father have outlived their relevance for a modem society.
Kamal discards the traditional reverence for the father along with his father's notions of a
meaningful life. In Palace of Desire the reader watches as Kamal shirks one traditional custom
after the other, including, marriage, family, even religion. During one of the many afternoons he
spends with his mother drinking coffee, Kamal responds to Amina's questions about his studies
with the final resolution that the past-their past as two naive beings in the world as well as
Egypt's innocence-- is gone:
The past was gone forever-the era of religious lessons and stories about prophets and
demons, when he had been insanely devoted to her. That era had come to an end. What
would they discuss today? Except for meaningless chatter there was absolutely nothing for
them to say to each other. He smiled, as though to apologize for both past and future
6 Mahfouz, Naguib. Palace ofDesire. New York: First Anchor Books, 1991, 161. Subsequently references to this
text will be made parenthetically in the body of my text.
The silence, indeed the very sense of nothingness that overcomes Kamal in this scene, will be
reflected in the social and political realms by the power-vacuum left by the British when they
finally leave Egypt.
Kamal registers as well as embodies the transitions Egypt undergoes between colonialism
and independence because he is an allegorical figure. Kamal represents an individual private
character in the novel-al-Sayyid Ahmad's son, Yasin and Fahmy's brother, the young boy
growing into a man-as well as Egypt itself. Kamal's coming of age in colonial Egypt reflects
Egypt's coming of age under British control. Similarly, his psychological and spiritual struggles
as an adult are both a consequence as well as a reflection of Egypt's identity crisis after the
colonial period is over.
But though Kamal assumes a posture of confidence and certainty when confronted by the
past (his mother and father), he remains in a state of spiritual turmoil that is representative of
Egypt's cultural dilemma at this historical moment. Indeed, the depth of Kamal's struggle is
revealed through an almost endless stream of internal monologue through which the larger
Egyptian struggle for independence and authentic identity is played out. In one of his numerous
political discussions with the Shaddads, a brother and sister pair who were raised in the West,
Kamal sees visions of Egypt's struggle for identity in his own search for truth:
Strangely enough the political activities of the day present an enlarged version of his life.
When he read about developments in the newspapers [regarding the struggle for
independence against the British] he could have been reading about the events at Palace
Walk [regarding his struggle for independence from the traditions of his father]... Kamal
felt the same emotion and passion about the political situation as he did about his personal
Kamal is caught between an inherited allegiance to the past through his family and the appeal of
the new and the modern, which is embodied in the character of Western raised and educated
Aida Shaddad. Similarly, Egypt is caught between the two extremes. In the historical moment
captured in Palace ofDesire, then, Egypt's condition is characterized by a sense of alienation
from itself. This is dramatically represented in the juxtaposition between the Abd al-Jawad
family and the Shaddads. The Shaddads represent that segment of Egyptian society infatuated
by the West and who want to see Egypt remade according to the Western model. During a group
excursion to Giza with Aida and her brother, the disparity between the two families becomes
clear to Kamal when the Shaddads reveal their willful ignorance of Egyptian traditions. With
both pork and alcohol prohibited by Islam, Kamal is shocked to learn that Aida had prepared a
lunch of ham sandwiches and cold beer for their trip. When Aida offers him a sandwich, Kamal,
still caught between two worlds, politely declines. He is not yet ready to choose which world he
The scene climaxes when the Shaddads playfully dismiss the importance of Kamal's
traditions, especially religious customs such as fasting during the Islamic holy month of
Ramadan. Husayn Shaddad teasingly mocks his sister, Aida, for her ignorance of accepted
"Aida fasts one day out of the whole month and sometimes gives up by afternoon."
Aida retorted in revenge, "Instead of fasting, Husayn eats four meals a day during
Ramadan: the three normal ones and then the meal before daybreak reserved for fasters"
Husayn laughed...He said," Isn't it strange that we know so little about our religion?
What Papa and Mama know about it is hardly worth mentioning. Our nurse was Greek.
Aida knows more about Christianity and its rituals than she does about Islam. Compared
with you [Kamal] we can be considered pagans." (193)
The preceding discussion between Aida and Husayn involves the distinctly Islamic practice of
fasting in the month of Ramadan. Such obligatory Islamic practices like fasting in Ramadan and
abstaining from pork, alcohol and fornication are part and parcel of what it meant at this time to
adhere to acceptable bourgeois Egyptian behavior. In other words, though the origins of such
mandates are religious, their performances were enfolded into Egyptian secular tradition over
time. Their performance was equally a manifestation of traditional Egyptian cultural practice as
it was an expression of faith. These practices therefore often lacked distinct religious coding.
Indeed, it was often only when one failed to adhere to such prescribed behaviors that the
question of faith arises, as in the above exchange between Aida and Husayn. In such instances,
then, religious faith is only the final word, the seal put on traditional custom to lend it a final
legitimacy. This is important to note because of the new, central role religion will take with the
rise of Salafi movements at the end of the novel.
By the end of the novel, both Husayn and Aida will have abandoned Egypt all together for
the West: both dramatically pick up and move to France, without notice and without any word
that they will keep in touch. Indeed, the Shaddad family fades entirely from the foreground of
the narrative until the end of Sugar Street. We only hear of them again to learn that the father
has lost his fortune and committed suicide; Aida has died in childbirth and Husayn has returned
to Egypt to take up an insignificant position in the civil service. With the demise of the
Shaddads, just as with the demise of Abd al-Jawad family, Mahfouz allegorically signals the
direction Egypt will take in the future: turning away from both the appeals of the West and the
tradition of al-Sayyid Ahmad, Egypt returns to the mythic past of Islam.
The struggle between Westernization and tradition is carried forward into the third
generation by Kamal's nephews-Ahmad, the Communist, and Abd al-Mun'im, the Muslim
Brother. However, this is an uneven battle, with the advantages heavily on the side of Abd al-
Mun'im, because of the alienating Western orientation of the Communists. At the time in
question, the emerging Egyptian middle classes were exceedingly skeptical of anything
stemming from the West. That these two characters are positioned within the narrative on a
somewhat level playing field has more to do with the perspective through which they are
presented rather than the reality of their influence. Ahmad seems to be an equal force to Abd al-
Mun'im in the social order of Palace of Desire and Sugar Street because he has the sympathy of
Kamal, whose point-of-view frames the narratives of both novels. Indeed, El-Nany sees Ahmad
as an "improved version of Kamal; he is what Kamal could have been had he succeeded in
freeing himself more radically from the past and from his romantic fixations."7
Abd al-Mun'im, however, represents the stronger tendency in Palace of Desire towards a
return to the fundamentals of Islam. This tendency gains momentum throughout the novel and
crystallizes into a full-fledged movement by the beginning of Sugar Street. For though the tenets
of Communism espoused by Ahmad represent a threat to the Western democratic model
imported to Egypt through the British occupation and thus a potentially appealing ideology to the
beleaguered Egyptian population of the 1930s and '40s, the return to a golden age of Islam
represents the most dramatic refusal of the West.
Indeed, the movement back to an Islamic past was engendered by Egypt's intense hatred
for the British, a hatred provoked by 54 years of occupation and exploitation. The move back to
Islam is thus a defensive move born in direct confrontation with the West. It represents in the
Muslim imagination the only force equal in power and scope to that of the British at this time. It
is by reviving the dream of a global Muslim ummah8 that Egyptians can contend with the
world's foremost superpower at this time.
SEl-Nany, Naguib Mahfouz, 89-90.
8 An Arabic term roughly translated to mean "community." The term is commonly used when discussing the larger
Muslim world, which conceives of itself as a unified community. This last point is especially pertinent for the
following discussion about Salafism as well as Salafi goals of recreating the Golden Age of Islam in the present.
Muslim jurists developed the theology ofjihad or "holy war' around this concept of the ummah. According to
Armstrong, they made it imperative on all Muslims to engage in continued struggle-both spiritual as well as
physical-to make the world accept the divine message of Islam and create a just society. The notion ofjihad, then,
was developed not only to protect the existing ummah of believers, but also to extend the rule of Islam into other
parts of the world where Islam had not been introduced. This logic is underscored by the notion of tawhid or
oneness: because there was only one God, the whole world should unite to form one ummah. This line of argument
became especially potent in the wake of Western colonialism and the division of Muslim lands into separate states.
According to Karen Armstrong, Salafi tactics in the latter half of the twentieth century
trace their roots to the Muslim memory of the Christian Crusades: Salafis often call "Western
colonialism and post-colonial Western imperialism al-Salihiyya [or] the Crusade." This is
important, Armstrong notes, not only because it recalls the violence and brutality of the West
against Islam, but also, more importantly, it harkens back to Islam's triumph in its ultimate
defeat of the West in 1187 under the command of Saladin.9 Therefore, just as Saladin had
recaptured Islam's holy lands from the forces of the West by mimicking the martial and spiritual
leadership of the Prophet, so the logic goes, would the Salafis, in recalling and reenacting the
piety and militarism of Islam's leaders, push the West out of Egypt.
Indeed, part of the appeal of Salafi movements can be attributed to the role of memory in
Islam generally. According to Asma Barlas, author of Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of
the Quran, [Muslim] tradition is not just "intertwined with history; it becomes its
reincarnation."" Enmeshed into Islamic faith itself is a legitimizing history in which the pre-
Islamic period is marked by ignorance, with the period inaugurated by the advent of Islam
marked as the beginning of true civilization. Thus, when the Muslim professes faith through the
,s\//, thtl/t, 11 he recognizes the superiority and singularity of Islam as the final corrective in human
history. It is upon this basis that Abd al-Mun'im proselytizes:
The Muslim Brotherhood would capitalize on this notion ofjihad to combat the remnants of the West in Egypt as
well as inspire other Salafi movements in different parts of the Muslim world (See Armstrong, Karen. Muhammad
New York: Harper Collins 1993, 260 for more on the formation of the Muslim ummah).
9 Armstrong, Karen. A Short History of slam. New York: Harper Collins, 2002, 179-181.
10 Barlas, Asma. "Believing Women ": Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Quran .Austin: University of
Texas Press, 2002, 88.
1 The Shahada is a statement of faith professing that there is No God but God and that Muhammad is His [last]
Prophet: La illahah il-Allah wa Muhammad-an-rasul-illah. As the translation suggests, the Shahada is based on a
particular history and worldview. When the believer says the Shahada, then, he or she is not simply professing his
or her faith in Islam, but he or she is also ascribing to a particular history. In this way, belief in Islam's history, her
Golden Age inaugurated during the time of Prophet Muhammad, is very much infolded into Islamic faith itself. In
We attempt to understand Islam as God intended it to be: a religion, a way of life, a code of
law, and a political system...let us prepare for a prolonged struggle. Our mission is not to
Egypt alone but to all Muslims worldwide.... We shall not put our weapons away until the
Quran has become a constitution for all Believers.12
In her 1995 study of the works of Mahfouz, Nadine Gordimer measures the weight of this scene
specifically and the role of the Muslim Brotherhood generally against the real: Mahfouz's own
life. Referring to this scene, Gordimer suggests a kind of foresight on Mahfouz's part when she
recalls thefatwa'3 issued against Salman Rushdie's life after the publication of The Satanic
Verses in 1989 as well as the threat against Mahfouz's life in 1994:
Mahfouz, way back in 1957, when he published this volume set in the Thirties, understood
his world well enough to foreshadow the Muslim fundamentalism that would distort a
great religion into a threat against the hope of democracy not only in Egypt but in many
other countries of the world.14
This is an apt interpretation of this scene. Already in 1957, the seeds that would give rise to
Salafism were beginning to bear fruit. Hassan Al-Banna founded the Muslim Brotherhood in the
late 1920s in response to the West's humiliation and exploitation of Egypt. One could speculate
that the Brotherhood did not take off until the later 1950s because some still held out hope that
independence would bring self-sufficiency to Egypt and the consequent return of its identity
without a return to fundamental Islam. Hence, the rather marginal position of Abd al-Munim
early in Sugar Street. Yet when signs emerged after independence in 1952 that Egypt would not
recover from the colonial encounter as quickly or as thoroughly as many had hoped, popular
other words, according to orthodox Islam one cannot profess to be a Muslim while contesting Islam's historical
12Mahfouz, Naguib. Sugar Street. New York: First Anchor Books, 1991, 119-120. Subsequently references to
this text will be made parenthetically in the body of my text.
13The official religious ruling that calls for or prohibits a specific action or behavior. In the case of the fatwa issued
against Salman Rushdie, the ruling called for punishment by death for what the ulama or Islamic scholars
understood was his parody of the Prophet.
14Gordimer, Nadine. "The dialogue of late afternoon." Echoes of an Autobiography. New York: Double Day,
desire to turn even farther back in Egypt's history for a source of authentic history and identity
became stronger. The Muslim Brotherhood soared in popularity and grew in membership as a
result.15 This is signaled through Abd al-Munim's prominence later in the novel.
The consolidation of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1950s Egypt is prefigured in Sugar Street
through the rise of Abd Al-Mun'im. Ahmad, Abd al-Mun'im's younger, Communist brother,
achieves a measure of success professionally --through his writing-- and personally in what is the
only happy marriage in the series. However his achievements in the novel are singular, isolated
and rather disconnected from the larger Egyptian society. He has neither a large following nor
does he inspire any political action. Because Ahmad is an allegorical figure, his limited success
and marginal significance in the novel reflect the failure of the Communist movement in Egypt.
Abd al-Mun'im, on the other hand, represents a new force taking over the streets of Egypt,
winning the hearts of the people and fulfilling their needs where the state falls short. Indeed, by
the end of the novel, Abd al-Mun'im had
established himself as a capable civil servant and an energetic member of the Muslim
Brethren. Leadership of their branch in al-Gamaliya devolved upon him. Named a legal
adviser to the organization, he helped edit its journal and occasionally delivered sermons in
sympathetic mosques... The young man was extremely zealous and more than prepared to
place everything he possessed-his industry, money, intelligence-at the service of the
cause, which he believed wholeheartedly to be, as its founder put it 'a pure revivalist
mission, a brotherhood based on the Prophet's example, a mystic reality, a political
organization, an athletic association, a cultural and scientific league, an economic
partnership, and a social concept. (275)
The power and appeal of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is here registered in its all-
encompassing agenda. In establishing an Islamic state, the Muslim Brotherhood seeks to
recreate a Golden Age of Islam as embodied by the Prophet Muhammad and the first caliphs of
Islam. In this early Islamic polity, everyone and everything was ordered according to the
15 For more on the growth of Salafi movements in Egypt see Nedoroscik, Jeffrey, A. "Extremist Groups in Egypt."
Terrorism and Political Violence. Summer 2002, Vol. 14, Issue 2.
imperatives laid out in the Quran. In the Muslim imagination, then, the peace, order and
discipline that characterized the early Islamic state paved the way for the rapid spread of Islam
during its Golden Age and the defeat of the Persian and Byzantine empires. These domestic and
foreign military successes were thus perceived to be the earthly rewards for spiritual purity on
the part of the Muslim ummah. In other words, the success of the first Islamic polity was
registered in the Muslim imagination as the direct response from God to the people for living
according to the laws of God-- a signal of His pleasure with Muslims for adhering to His law.
Similarly, the rapid expansion of Islam from Arabia to Andalusia in the West and to India
in the East further confirmed in the Muslim mind the role of Islam as the final word in the
history of world civilization. The subsequent colonialism of the Muslim world, its social,
political and cultural degradation after the fall of this vast Muslim empire in the eighteenth
century, could thus only be registered as consequences of a loss in Islamic faith, the result of the
turn toward a secular society. The social and political turmoil that followed became,
retrospectively, signs of Gods displeasure with Muslims for their disobedience.
According to Salafi narratives of Muslim history, the demise of the Muslim empire was
therefore a consequence not of military failure or material changes but rather spiritual corruption
on the part of Muslims. Because of the fundamental nature of faith in Islam, spiritual corruption
was perceived to necessarily penetrate into every aspect of life and every level of the Muslim
ummah-not just the religious or the political. Such corruption was characterized by a
negligence of religious duties and a casual attitude towards those duties when they were
addressed-the kind of isolated, ritualistic performance of prayer and religious devotion we see
in al-Sayyid Ahmad's practice of Islam. In political and social terms, corruption was manifest in
the new imperative to separate between religion and state and between religion and every day
For the devout Muslim, such practical separations, no matter how minute, signaled an
interior corruption, a turning away on the part of the Muslim from God towards the things of this
world. This separation then, according to Salafi narratives, represents the ultimate threat to the
Muslim ummah, for it means the loss of the meaning of Islam as a way of life and a return to the
days of Jahilliya17 According to Sayyid Qutb, one of the early members of the Muslim
Brotherhood and a voice for Islamic militancy, this loss is signaled when Islam is not fully
applied across the board within the realms of the political, social and cultural and economic.18
This separation suggests, moreover, that religion is an arbitrary institution that can be taken up or
shaken off at anytime. This perceived change in popular attitudes toward Islam was often
attributed to Western political intervention in the Muslim world and its subsequent cultural
According to Salafi Muslim historical narratives, such changes did not occur in the Muslim
world until the West penetrated the Muslim world, first physically through military might and
economic coercion; and then culturally and spiritually through commercial dominance and
ideological importation.19 Indeed, many early Muslim Brothers were initially inspired to join the
movement after witnessing the changes affecting their communities brought about by the West.
16 In the wake of a series of attacks in Egypt by the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1990s, John Esposito offers a unique
historical analysis of said events. He connects the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood to that period of crisis that
immediately followed imperialism and Westernization (See John Esposito. Islam: The Straight Path. Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 1992, 120).
7 Arabic term literally meaning "ignorance," and carrying the connotation of backwardness and the archaic.
18 See Qutb, Said. Signposts on the Road. Salimiah: International Islamic Federation of Student Organizations,
19 See Esposito, Islam, 120.
The founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hassan al-Banna, was motivated to return to the
fundamentals of Islam after coming into contact with the British in Cairo and witnessing the
changes they had affected in Egyptian social and cultural life:
I saw that the social life of the beloved Egyptian nation was oscillating between her dear
and precious Islamism which she had inherited, defended, lived with and become
accustomed to, and made powerful during thirteen centuries, and this severe Western
invasion which is armed and equipped with all destructive and degenerative influences of
money, wealth, prestige, ostentation, material enjoyment, power and means of
According to this narrative, then, in order to rescue the Muslim ummah from the seductions of
the West, the Muslim ummah must be remade into its original mold. For such Salafi movements
like the Muslim Brotherhood, this means the Islamicizing of society from the ground up.
Everyone and everything must be made to reflect the teachings of the Prophet and the law of the
Quran. Only by returning to this kind of society will the Muslim world be able to confront the
powers of the West.21
20 Quoted in Nedoroscik, Jeffrey, A. E \LI niu.i Groups in Egypt." Terrorism and Political Violence. Summer
2002, Vol. 14, Issue 2, 50.
21 In his 2003 study of "Extremist Groups in Egypt," Jeffery Nedoroscik attributes the rise of such Salafi movements
as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the global mujahadeen (fighter) network, Al Qaeda, to Western military,
political and economic meddling in the affairs of Muslims. He suggests, as I argue, that such groups arose as
responses to Westernization. In this same study, however, Nedoroscik separates between Western colonialism and
Westernization of the Muslim world and the socio-economic conditions of many parts of the Muslim world. By
doing so, Nedoroscik suggests that these are two, distinct and unrelated reasons for the rise of Salafi movements in
places like Egypt. In doing so, Nedoroscik implicitly argues that poor economic conditions in themselves may drive
people to acts of terror. Here, however, I am arguing that the two-Western colonialism and Westernization and the
subsequent failure of the Egyptian economy-are inseparable or, rather, that the latter is the consequence of the
former. Where Nedoroscik and I differ is in perspective. Where Nedoroscik relies on empirical evidence to
formulate his argument, I rely on the narrative of said Salafi movements to make my argument. Thus, according to
this narrative Western colonialism and the subsequent Westernization form the roots of the failures in the Muslim
world. This is not to say that had the economic conditions of those who support Salafi movements been better they
would never have supported such movements, but rather that according to these narratives, socio-economic
conditions are incidental or, most likely, not even recognized as contributing factors. The most important imperative
of those involved in such movements is the resurrection of true Islam. This in itself will solve the socio-economic
problems in the Muslim world. Indeed, Nedoroscik himself later concedes that from the point of view of "Islamists"
socio-economic injustice is connected to the Western project of globalization and Westernization that "is leaving
most of Egypt's people behind and given them little voice in the future." Nedoroscik then explains acts of terrorism
as attempts to bring attention to the plight of Egypt's poorest-the population of Upper Egypt specifically.
Where upper and middle-class Egyptian women were the objects of class-interested,
traditional patriarchy at the turn of the century, by the middle of the twentieth century, Egyptian
women become equal and active agents in the return to fundamental Islam. Since women are
perceived in Muslim society as the bearers of Islamic values in the culture, this return to
fundamental Islam necessarily required the work and support of women.22
Also, because this movement addressed all aspects its members' lives, it enfolded into its
program even the prescription of such daily rituals as hygiene and dress. According to Karen
Armstrong, the Muslim Brothers specifically sought to model their lives on the Prophet's life in
order to "approximate as closely as possible to [his] perfection"23 and so establish the
foundations of a new Egyptian polity based on the Prophet's model. The Muslim Brothers began
to imitate the ways Muhammad "spoke, ate, loved, washed and worshipped so that in the
smallest details of their li [ves]"24 not simply to purify themselves spiritually but also to give
their members first-hand access to the process of remaking Egypt into a fully Islamicized
Women also rose to the Muslim Brotherhood's challenge. Instead of emulating the
Prophet, however, Muslim Egyptian women sought to emulate the lives of his wives. This meant
a return to seclusion in some instances, an active involvement in the life of the local mosque and,
perhaps most conspicuously, a revival of the hijab. Women symbolically signaled their support
of this turn to Salafi Islam through the new, distinctly Islamic veil.25
22 Ahmad, Leila. Women and Gender in Islam. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993, 216.
23 Armstrong, Muhammad: Biography ofa Prophet. New York: Harper Collins, 1993, 262.
24 Armstrong, Muhammad, 262.
25 Ahmad, Women and Gender, 216-217.
Indeed, by the time the Free Officers came to power in Egypt and expelled the British from
Egyptian soil once and for all, Egyptian Muslim women of all classes began voluntarily taking
up the veil. The veil was no longer solely a marker of class or merely the practice of the
extraordinarily devout, but was now first and foremost a popular cultural symbol of religious and
cultural authenticity. After years of political, social and economic turmoil resulting from ill-fated
entanglements with the West, Egyptian women took up the veil in resistance to the West.
This new veil is distinct from the traditional veil of Palace Walk in three important ways.
The symbolic coding of this veil has expanded to include the roots of Islamic development
within its very fabric. In other words, in and through the veil, Muslim Egyptian women signal
their return to what many believe are the practices of a true Islam as it is thought to have existed
during the time of the Prophet. This, then, is part of a larger social effort in Egypt and, indeed, in
the larger Muslim world, to recreate the first Muslim ummah in the present.
This new veil is also a political symbol of refusal. That many veiled women interpret
veiling as a religious obligation rather than a social or cultural marker signals this new veil's new
political urgency. Again, this interpretive shift can be read as part of wider postcolonial Islamic
response to Western colonial ventures and cultural infiltration into the Muslim world. Finally,
this new veil, in dramatic contrast to the traditional veil in Palace Walk, is the manifestation of
personal choice. Indeed, that this new veil reflects an optional support on the part of Egyptian
Muslim women of a return to the fundamentals of Islam only reinforces its political
During the time span between the opening of Palace Walk, which takes place in 1914, and
the closing of the Sugar Street, 1944, the symbolism of the veil radically transforms from an
26 Ahmad, Women and Gender, 216-217.
externally imposed instrument of female sexual regulation used to protect patriarchal class
interests to a performance of Egyptian women's Muslim identities and thus an act of resistance
on the part of women against the forces of Westernization. This movement begins to coalesce at
the end of Egypt colonial period and gains momentum with independence.27
The element of fitna, it should be noted, cannot be absolutely extricated from any
examination of this new movement just because women have decided to adorn the veil now.
Indeed, in many instances the situation is quite the contrary: the fear of fitna has become more
pronounced. This is perhaps due to the possibility that many of the women who voluntarily veil
themselves accept-and therefore reinforce through their adornment of the veil-the orthodox
Islamic position on female sexuality. In other words, in wearing the veil as a protection from the
male gaze, which is the original Islamic purpose many women are trying to recoup by taking up
the veil, and ending the discussion of gender rights with an answer of "Islam," the veil also
manages to cover over deeper issue of gender and gender rights. By wearing the veil, many
women necessarily internalize the precepts of submission upon which it is now based. Though it
may give them a momentary false sense of empowerment, Muslim women who veil maintain the
Islamic social norms that grant men the agency of looking and render women mere bodies to be
Indeed, this fear of woman's overwhelming sexual power is related to the concept of
female awra. Awra literally relates to female genitalia, but extends to "mean anything shameful
27 Ahmad, Women and Gender, 216-217. Ahmad fixes the actual date of the resurgence in veiling to Egypt's 1967
defeat by Israel during the Arab-Israeli war. She links Egyptian women's revealing to the larger Islamic revival that
took place during the war with Israel, suggesting that Egypt's military failure inspired a compensating heightened
religiosity among the general Egyptian populace.
28 Abisaab, Malek and Rula Jurdi Abisaab. "A Century After Qasim Amin: Fictive Kinship and Historical Uses of
Tahrir al-Mara." Al-Jadid. Summer 2000. Vol. 6 No. 32, 5.
that must be covered and hidden from view."29 In orthodox Islamic discourse, awra is associated
with the gaze and refers to that which cannot be looked at, specifically the whole female body.
Awra is the reason for women's historic exclusion from religious spaces and, in the modem
context when seclusion has become less and less practical, the need to veil women. The woman
who voluntarily veils, then, may on some level accept the validity of this logic.30
This point is reinforced in the responses of veiled Muslim women in a study done by
Ghada Osman in Cairo, Egypt in the winter of 2002. When asked why they veil, many of the
women responded that the cloth of the veil maintains the spatial boundaries of seclusion while
allowing them the freedom to venture outside of the home, in effect "carving out legitimate
public spaces for [women]." As one Egyptian woman explained, "This way I can go wherever I
please, and nobody looks at me. They know that wherever I go, I am thinking about God, and
not about sex or money or anything like that, so they know my intentions are pure."31 The
references to sex and money are, of course, common short-hand among Egyptian Muslims for
These religious and social changes are subtly documented by Mahfouz and only become
visible near the end of Sugar Street. That the female front of the movement back to fundamental
Islam manifest rather marginally in the narratives of the last two novels in the Trilogy is not a
reflection of its insignificance or its weakness, but rather a reflection of Mahfouz's fidelity to the
real. Indeed, according to El-Guindi and Osman, the women's Salafi movement does not begin
to really take off until after the 1952 revolution. It is nevertheless useful to look at the last two
29 Grace, Daphne. Woman in the Muslin Mask: Veiling and Identity in Postcolonial Literature. London: Pluto Press,
30 Ahmad, Women and Gender, 218-219.
31 Osman, Ghada. "Back to Basics: The Discourse of Muslim Feminism in Contemporary Egypt." Women and
Language. Volume 26. Issue 1, 75.
novels in The Trilogy for the roots of these later movements. Mahfouz registers the shifts that
are already beginning to take place by the middle 1940s in Cairo in the gradual and understated
shifts in his treatment of women in Sugar Street.
We see the first signs of change in none other than the character whose treatment in Palace
Walk embodies middle-class Egyptian tradition: Amina herself. Amina therefore allegorically
registers the shifts taking place in the larger social context. That Amina identifies with this new
Islamic revival signals that fundamental Islam will replace the traditional social model that she
embodied in Palace Walk.
This comes across most dramatically in Amina's heightened religiosity as well as through
her sartorial transformation. Indeed, each time we encounter Amina in Sugar Street we are
confronted with the image not of the dependent nor of the servant, but rather of an independent
and self-consciously devout woman. She is no longer holed up behind the walls of the house;
rather, she comes and goes as she pleases. Indeed, in an interesting reversal of roles, al-Sayyid
Ahmad, bed-ridden and close to death, is by the end of the novel often left home alone awaiting
Amina's return just as Amina used to sit home awaiting his. Amina now spends most of her time
praying at the shrine of Husayn, the very place she was, ironically enough, banished from the
house for visiting alone. Her devotion to her husband has been replaced by her devotion to God:
Over the course of time, the old house assumed a new look of decay and decline. Its
routine disintegrated... During the first half of the day, when Kamal was away at school,
Amina was off on her spiritual tour of the mosques of the Prophet's grandchildren al-
Husayn and al-Sayyida Zaynab... al-Sayyid Ahmad did not leave his room...Amina was
still the first to wake. [Instead of tending to al-Sayyid Ahmad]... she performed her
ablutions and her prayers... (178).
Indeed, in an encounter between the sick al-Sayyid Ahmad and this new Amina near the end of
the novel, the larger power shift from class-dominated tradition to fundamental Islam is reflected
allegorically in the following exchange. Here, al-Sayyid Ahmad represents the old class-based
tradition of Palace Walk where Amina manifests the characteristics of the rising Salafi
He [al-Sayyid Ahmad] glanced down the street again and finally his eyes came to rest on
Amina, who was returning from her daily circuit. Modestly attired in a coat and a white
veil, she proceeded at a slow pace...Raising his voice loud enough to allow the desired
sharpness to reverberate in it, he said, 'How are you yourself? God's will be done!
You've been out since early morning, lady.'She smiled and replied, "I visited the shrines
of al-Sayyida Zaynab and of al-Husayn. I prayed for you and for everyone else.' (157)
In this scene, Amina confronts the old tradition embodied in al-Sayyid Ahmad wearing the garb
of the new Egypt. Similarly, the veil itself is a replacement of the old: instead of the long black
burqa that marked Amina as the wife of al-Sayyid Ahmad in Palace Walk, Amina is remade in
the image of the contemporary Muslim Egyptian women. The new veil, as is evident in this
scene, only covers the head and varies in color. In this scene of role reversal, then, the
turnaround as it is played out within the microcosm of the Abd al-Jawad family home
symbolizes the larger shifts beginning to take place in Egyptian society.
Amina's symbolic embodiment of Salafism is further underscored by the fact that she
emerges wearing the new veil in this scene. In other words, she becomes a vehicle of Salafi
Islamic expression through, specifically, dress. The new veil Amina wears is a reinvocation of
the "curtain" which was initially prescribed exclusively for the Prophet's wives (and so its
growing observation by Muslim women presently as an effort to invoke the past, can,
technically, be read as a deviation from the past). Amina continues voluntarily veiling even after
the patriarch institution it was meant to protect has begun to crumble, a change suggesting that
the meaning of the veil has changed. Here Amina is no longer al-Sayyid Ahmad's passive
objects upon which male-imposed meanings were foisted, but is rather an active participant in
the recreation of a Golden Age of Islam in Egypt.
By the end of the trilogy, Amina evinces remarkable changes. She not only comes and
goes as she pleases, alone and without her husband's permission, but she is fully engaged in a
project all her own: religion. Instead of tending to her husband, who needs more tending at this
time than ever before, Amina spends her time, not insignificantly, at the very shrine for which
she risked her very livelihood some twenty years earlier. It is this shift in subjectivity that is
crucial for my argument. This shift in Amina's subjectivity is, as I see it, the seed that gives rise
to the next generation's movement to veil.
I focus on the veil as being symbolic of this shift not because Mahfouz focuses on the veil,
but rather because of the significance of the veil in the history of Muslim women. Muslim
women have not historically received much attention except for the ways that they are registered
in both the West's and the Muslim male's minds as being intrinsically different. This difference
lies, according to Leila Ahmad, Fatima Memissi, Ghada Osman and Fadwa El-Guindi, in the
realm of sexuality. It is around this notion of women's inherent difference that discourses of
inferiority and weakness have been constructed in Islamic orthodoxy and upon which Islamic
orthopraxy is largely based, the most conspicuous examples being seclusion and veiling.
The change we witness in Amina's character along with the gradual disappearance of
traditional gender inscriptions by the end of Sugar Street provide the context in which to read the
larger Salafi movement emerging at the time of the novels' publication. Though many Salafi
movements in Egypt and elsewhere are rooted in socio-economic frustrations of the poor, these
are largely ideological movements whose goals stretch beyond the material or economic spheres
to address issues of religious identity and social justice.
Egypt's material failures, however, created room for the Muslim Brotherhood to grow.
For example, Egypt's mid-century population explosion coupled with soaring unemployment
and varying degrees of political oppression and dissent provided the perfect mix for the rise of
the Muslim Brotherhood. This provided the Muslim Brothers opportunity to pick up where the
new secular government had left off. The Brother's thus founded the first non-governmental
associations in Cairo after independence. In addition to clinics and pharmacies, similar Islamic
associations also created nurseries, schools and centers for professional training from which they
could spread their political message of Islam.32 Indeed, according to John Esposito "the message
of the [Muslim] Brotherhood was the conviction that Islam provided a divinely revealed and
prescribed third alternative to Western capitalism and Soviet Marxism."33
In its early period, the Muslim Brotherhood limited itself to educational projects. Its goals
at this point were twofold: to save all Muslims through education and protect Egyptians from the
dangers of foreign influence.34 It was not until the 1970s after Egypt's humiliating defeat at the
hands of the Israelis and Nasser's failed socialist project that some members of the Muslim
Brotherhood began to resort to violence, declaring an officialjihad or holy war against what they
perceived was an increasingly Westernized, consumerist society. The more radical members of
the Brotherhood would eventually leave the organization altogether to form their own militant
factions. Such groups as Gamaat al-Muslimin or Society of Muslims and Gamaat al-Jihad, the
militant group responsible for orchestrating Sadat's assassination in 1981, were the outcome.
These groups withdrew from society, performing a modern version of the Prophet's hijra or
retreat, in order to train their members in the fundamentals of Islam and holy warfare.
32 Clark, Janine. "Islamic Social Welfare Organizations in Cairo: Islamicization from Below?" Arab Studies
Quarterly; Fall 95, Vol. 17 Issue 4, 12-13.
33 Esposito, Islam, 123.
34 Ferea, Robert. "Gender, Sexuality and Patriarchy in Moder Egypt." Critique: Critical Middle Eastern Studies;
Fall 2003, Vol. 12. Issue 2, 52.
By the 1990s Egyptian Islamists emerged from hiding and began putting into action the
kind of global warfare Mahfouz foreshadows through Abd al-Mun'im. The two most active
groups are the Gamaat al-Islamiya (the Islamic Organization) and the Gamaat al-Jihad (the
Organization of Holy War). The bombing of the Egyptian Embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan in
1995, fatal shooting of 18 Greek tourists in Cairo in 1996, and the failed attack on the American
Embassy in Albania in 1998 have all been attributed to the Gamaat al-Islamiya. However, the
most noteworthy action came in February 1993 when the Gamaat al-Jihad, led by the now
notorious blind Egyptian sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, bombed the World Trade Center in New
York, setting the precedent for al-Qaeda's 2001 attacks at the same site. The emergence of the
new veil arose in tandem with these Islamist uprisings and has grown ever since.
The new drive to veil in contemporary Egypt is grounded in the historical and social
realities of a changing nation. The Western encroachment embodied by the British in the
twentieth century and, now, American military aggression and economic coercion have made
Islam central to politics once more. The West's intrusion into the lives of Egyptians has raised
major questions about the current state of Islam in Egypt as well as its future role in Egyptian
politics. Many Egyptians interpret the success of the West in gaining dominance over their
country as, in the words of Karen Armstrong, a "sign that something had gone gravely awry in
Islamic history"' once again. Many Egyptians, therefore, are turning to more and more
fundamental Islamic teachings in an effort both to understand and overcome these new
circumstances. By returning to the model of the first Islamic state, many of Egypt's Muslims
believe they will be able put Egyptian history back on the straight path.
As I see it, the new veil is a significant symbol of this return to "true" Islam. Though we do
not get an explicit explanation or definition of this new veil from the mouths of the women who
don it in Mahfouz's Trilogy, nor, in many cases, from veiled women interviewed on the ground,
we get the foundations of this new phenomenon in literature. In The Cairo Trilogy, for example,
we understand the shifts in the meaning and practice of the veil through the power shifts in the
Abd al-Jawad family and the larger social movements that color the background of the novels.
This new veil thus arises during a moment in Egypt's history when the fall of middle class
patriarchal tradition makes way for an expanded role for women.
But I am not simply interested in the veil as sartorial fabric or a resurgent fashion. I
advocate an understanding of women's experience beneath the veil as well, what Marnia Lazreg
' Armstrong, Karen. Muhammad: Biography of a Prophet. New York: Harper Collins, 1993, 152.
calls the reality that lies behind the veil: women's strategic uses of the veil as well as the
subjectivity of veiling.2
Amina provides an interesting and accurate portrait of both aspects of veiling.In his
nuanced depiction of Amina throughout the series, Mahfouz grounds the burgeoning movement
to veil in Egypt and other parts of the Muslim world in history. The full black veil Amina wears
in Palace Walk is an instrument of patriarchal oppression. It serves to mark upper and middle
class women as the recognized property of their male guardians. The partial white veil Amina
wears at the end of the trilogy is an expression of identity and emerges alongside larger Salafi
movements in response to Western colonialism.
This new veil emerges with a new Amina in a new Islamiczed Egypt. Amina's
transformation-both sartorially as well as subjectively-foreshadows the changes Egypt will
undergo in the coming decades. By the time of The Cairo Trilogy's publication, the Muslim
Brotherhood had grown into a full-fledged politico-religious organization with a sister branch for
women called The Muslim Sisterhood.3 The new veil is symbolic of these changes. By the
1970s, it becomes as ubiquitous as the traditional veil illustrated in Palace Walk. This veil,
however, is about liberation from imposed, imported identities, consumerist behaviors, and an
increasingly materialist culture.
By simultaneously following Egypt's transition into independence, and its struggle for
self-identity in the face of Western colonialism and cultural encroachment, we can begin to
understand the political coloring of this religious veil. The election of Hamas in Palestine, the
growing mujahadeen4 movement in Afghanistan and Iraq and the rising popularity of the Muslim
2 Lazreg, Marnia. The Eloquence of Silence: Algerian Women in Question. London: Routledge, 1994, 14.
3 Ahmad, Leila. Women and Gender in Islam. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992, 217-218.
4 fighters in the cause of Islam; those who fight injihad.
Brotherhood in Egypt are all accompanied by the recent resurgence of the veil among women.
By following the trajectory of Egyptian history as Mahfouz narrates it, it becomes clear that
these movements are not the result of fanaticism or irrational drives. Rather, the growing
popularity of Salafi movements as well as the growing support of women for these movements,
manifest the Muslim desire to rescue a tradition and way of life in shock. Thus, no longer the
objects of political and economic interests by the end of the series, Mahfouz's female characters
use their newfound agency to make personal as well political statements of their own. Amina
does this with her body through her donning of the new veil.
Finally, I cannot end without a few words about Mahfouz's unique style and sincere prose.
Mahfouz's honest and sensitive depiction of the characters in this series not only informs the
reader about contemporary Egyptian cultural transformations, but also complicates these
transformations. Mahfouz tears down the Orientalist construction of Muslims, Islam and the
Islamic veil. Instead of a singular monolithic depiction of Islam and the Muslim, we are
introduced to the inconsistencies of Islamic doctrine, the frailties of the Muslim and the
complicated history and psychology behind both through the Abd al-Jawads. In this way, Islam
is demystified and the Muslim is humanized. Similarly, the origins of Egypt's various political,
social and religious movements, including the renewed Islamic impulses and the new veil,
emerge seamlessly in his narrative, anticipating and answering the contemporary Western
reader's questions about this sometimes incomprehensible culture. And so I will end with Daniel
Pipes' homage to Mahfouz 's Palace Walk, which can be applied to The Trilogy as a whole, for
the last word:
Mahfouz can be compared to Honore Balzac in his love for the life of a particular great
city, high and low, and his tolerance for the ambiguity in the heart of each human. At its
best, Palace Walk is full of insight about the human condition. Its triumph lies in the
portrayal of character...whom we might easily judge to be a moral monster. But Mahfouz
makes plausible, through multiple points of view and [characters'] interior monologues,
the good opinion held of [them] by friends, family, and self.5
SPipes, Daniel. "Book Review: Palace Walk." December 2005. http: www.danielpipes.org/article/872.
Abisaab, Malek and Rula Jurdi Abisaab. "A Century After Qasim Amin: Fictive Kinship and
Historical Uses of Tahrir al-Mara." Al-Jadid 6.32 (2000): 5.
Ahmed, Leila. Women and Gender in Islam. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992.
Al-Saadawi, Nawal. The NawalAl-Saadawi Reader. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997.
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Maryam El-Shall was born in Butte, Montana and grew up Florida. She completed her
secondary education in Gainesville, Florida before attending the University of Florida in the fall
of 2001. El-Shall graduated from the University of Florida in May of 2004 with a BA in
English. In August of 2004, El-Shall then entered the graduate program at the University of
Florida to further her study in English literature. During this time, El-Shall focused on cultural
and postcolonial literatures and cultures, emphasizing the tripartite effects of gender, class and
race in her research. El-Shall completed her MA in English in December of 2006. She
continues to teach in the fields of English literature and composition.